Amid today’s evolving and often volatile energy landscape, the importance of E (Environment), S (Social), and G (Governance) balance continues to grow across all domains, particularly in the real estate sector.
The goal of this article is to shed light on the current and expected evolution of ESG scoring in GRESB, and emerging drivers that are incentivizing companies to make a more positive impact. ESG scoring factors have been the backbone of GRESB since its establishment in 2009, and amid a continuous industry evolution. The benchmark is still subject to adaptation of ever-changing challenges and expectations — with a particular focus now on investor needs.
We will explore the benchmark’s contributions to thriving sustainable communities and promoting progress towards the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals. We will also explore the trends and what can be expected in the evolution of GRESB scoring, with respect to its E and S dimensions.
The two GRESB benchmarks (Real Estate Benchmark, considering management and performance factors; and Development Benchmark, considering management and development factors) have different breakdowns of the E, S, and G dimensions. The E component accounts for the highest portion of attributed points in both benchmarks.
GRESB is a common industry standard recognized incentive by real estate funds, REITs, property companies, real estate developers, infrastructure fund managers, and asset operators. The standard consistently increases its geographical expansion and aims to become the most impactful benchmark in the real estate domain. The Environmental part tends to be the most complex, firstly because of its weight compared to other factors, as mentioned, and secondly, due to the existence of other E focused real estate certifications such as BREEAM1, LEED2, and Green Star3.
“More focus was needed on performance, outcomes and impacts, [..] and on granularity around the issues of climate resilience and climate risk,”4 as pointed out in Emerald Insight journal. Indeed, measuring buildings performance with increased accuracy will address the climate risks with more impact. From Schneider Electric’s own work, and from discussions with other sustainability professionals advising real estate companies participating in GRESB, there is a sense that environmental indicators are transitioning towards more quantitative metrics to measure building performance. In the coming years, the GRESB scoring system is expected to evolve towards outcome-based activities, transitioning from effort-based ones. Outcome-based activities reflect the actual ESG performance5, while the effort-based activities reward the actions that will help to drive the ESG performance6. Hence, this transition from a qualitative to a more quantitative approach will require asset owners to demonstrate their measured achievements in reducing energy, water, and waste consumption. Other strategic directions that the benchmark is projected to take in the next five years are expected to be published in the GRESB roadmap7 later this year.
The aforementioned changes will likely lead to a trend toward greater investments in digital tools, enabling greater building performance tracking, instead of creating policies and reports to check the box.
The Social part of ESG has also undergone a strong evolution in the real estate domain and beyond, as explained by Graeme Newel in his research on real estate insights8: The GRESB Health and Well-Being section was added in the real estate fund ESG assessment, with 20% of ESG ratings attributed to the S module in EPRA9 Sustainability Best Practice Recommendations. Meanwhile, INREV10 is working on improved Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion guidance for European real estate players. The increasing interest for S indicators helps to broaden the scope of social issues that are addressed via these new frameworks. The growing focus on S in ESG is likely driven by the growing prominence of important global social topics such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, well-being, mental health, work-life balance, user satisfaction and fair pay in the public discourse.
The expected dialogue around real estate impact and scoring is undoubtedly going to happen surrounding the challenges of assessing and monitoring social impacts for real estate companies. Social values are not only challenging from a measurement perspective because of their complexity, but they can be perceived and evaluated differently by stakeholders. In the foreseeable future, answering the “what?” is going to be easier than answering the “how?” when it comes to being measured. This resonates with the recent “Responsible Real Estate Social Value” survey conducted by JLL11, which revealed that challenges are often rooted in different priorities of social values depending on stakeholders, and the transformation of those with time. Yet the question still persists: “Do companies have the capability, the necessary data and the leadership accountability to accelerate their social value impact?” GRESB and other ESG reporting schemes are key drivers to developing these competencies, and demonstrate the growing importance of the responsibility in social value creation.
Emphasizing the priority of S indicators will play an important role in delivering not only long-term returns, but also create positive societal change, including more sustainable communities and cities. Yet, the lack of comprehensive metrics in the S dimension has held back the social indicators, as compared to the environmental ones. As the adage in business management goes: “If you can measure it, you can manage it (and you can improve it).” This is exactly relevant for the S part of ESG. Development of SMART12 S metrics is highly expected in coming years to address social issues in real estate and beyond.
With the expected changes in social impacts measurement, the authors of this article agree that GRESB will continue to set higher standards globally on real estate projects and assets, and companies must be prepared for the road ahead.
As attention and expectations on ESG performance in the real estate sector continues to grow, the most important trend observed is a shifting focus from ambitions to actions. Supporting this shift will require better measuring and monitoring, as well as deployment of policies. Stakeholders need to move from “Doing ESG,” to “Doing ESG well,” with even more attention on the S dimension, given the already solid maturity of the E aspects.
Notably, The United Nations Sustainable Development Report 2023 — available in draft format — depicts that the collective progress towards the SDG s is seriously off track, with less than a fifth of the goals performing as desired.
Although the Sustainability Development Goals are still to be reached, it is encouraging to see the current uptake that real estate stakeholders achieved with GRESB and other associated ESG frameworks, specifically on E and S dimensions. As the real estate sector is one of the largest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, it is crucial that the industry defines actions that will address climate change, as well as promote better social practices in our diverse working and living spaces. In its 2023 Global Policy Principles for a Sustainable Built Environment report, World Green Building Council’s CEO acknowledges that the building sector is in a strong position to deliver resilient development, while also addressing other societal issues including health and equity.
GRESB’s implication as one of the gold standards of ESG in real estate is key to bring other industry players to make a positive impact. The stakes are high, and the time is now to move from ambition to action.
The article was written by Irina Silanteva and Annamária Virág, Sustainability Consultants at Schneider Electric Sustainability Business EMEA.
This article first appeared in the GRESB newsroom. To view, click here.
- “Improving the benchmarking of ESG in real estate investment” Graeme Newell, School of Business, Western Sydney University, Sydney, Australia; Anupam Nanda, Department of Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK; Alex Moss, Faculty of Finance, Bayes Business School, City University of London, London, UK
- e.g., year-over-year building energy efficiency improvement
- e.g., development of a robust ESG policy
- “Real estate insights: the increasing importance of the “S” dimension in ESG” Graeme Newell, School of Business, Western Sydney University, Sydney, Australia
- European Public Real Estate Association
- European Investors in Non-Listed Real Estate
- Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time based