The black and white case for impact-focused corporate reporting

Getting businesses to contribute towards climate targets must be predicated on comprehensive sustainability reporting. Getting to net-zero may take time but proper disclosures need to start now.

sustainable finance illustration
Several different sustainable reporting standards are used globally today. There are efforts to standardise and beef up their criteria. Image: reynermediaCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Last month saw the annual letter to CEOs from BlackRock’s Larry Fink land in our inboxes. It includes some very positive, indeed admirable, language around the need for responsible business practices.

To quote Mr. Fink, “a company must create value for and be valued by its full range of stakeholders in order to deliver long-term value for its shareholders”. Yet how will this be achieved?

Here is where things start to get a bit more complicated. Discussing the need for businesses to increase their contributions to the goal of net-zero, Mr. Fink states “It will not happen overnight” – which we can all accept – but instead will “need to pass through shades of brown to shades of green”. The  lack of a timetable here fails to reflect the pressing urgency of the climate crisis, or the growing demands for companies to significantly increase their actions in support of net-zero. 

The priority for many investors is first and foremost about enterprise value, not sustainability. Yet guidance on what companies should report from the BlackRock’s of this world should also reflect multi-stakeholder needs for transparency on the full range of impacts companies have on people and planet. That is so far missing.

Failing to provide sustainability reporting outside the provision of financially material information for shareholders ignores the reality that the needs of the world’s economy, its people and environment go beyond climate metrics or investor interest alone.

There is no justification for a slow transition ‘from brown to green’. Comprehensive transparency for sustainability impacts that responds to the needs of a multitude of stakeholders, as enabled by the GRI Standards, is crucial for helping companies get there. More than 10,000 companies around the world already accept this, and voluntarily use our sustainability reporting standards.

This is not to say the needs of investors for improved sustainability-related information on financial risk should be ignored. Indeed, the IFRS Foundation’s newly created International Sustainability Standards Board has this purpose at its core. GRI is in full support of this development, as we have previously made clear.

Meanwhile, the European Union, through the incoming Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, is preparing for sustainability disclosure requirements with a multi-stakeholder focus. This will see new EU standards based on the ‘double materiality’ concept, which in addition to impacts on enterprise value, ensures companies are accountable for their external impacts on society and the environment. The IFRS and European developments should be viewed as complementary rather than competing.

As set out in a paper on the GRI perspective, we believe sustainability reporting that informs the full spectrum of stakeholders is not only desirable, it’s good for business. Well beyond simply fulfilling reporting expectations, it enables businesses, investors, policymakers, employees, customers and civil society to engage in dialogue and reach decisions that align with inclusive sustainable development. Indeed, explaining how a company’s actions seek not only to be profitable but also to safeguard stakeholder interests is a powerful way of demonstrating the contribution to people and planet.

We support Larry Fink’s drive towards a stakeholder-centric economic model. But without considering the information needs of their stakeholders, companies are faced with a credibility issue. Besides, many large businesses already report against financial reporting standards and GRI’s sustainability standards.

Endorsing broad sustainability reporting would greatly support Blackrock’s stated backing for stakeholder capitalism, while it would also be appreciated by the thousands of companies that already use our standards.

Preserving value and managing sustainability impacts is not and should not be mutually exclusive. To ensure that companies meet their social and environmental obligations, we need a strengthened corporate reporting system where financial and sustainability reporting are given equal status.

In the words of Larry Fink, “this won’t happen overnight’’ – but the starting point for companies is not a shade of brown or green. It’s about committing now to comprehensive reporting on their impacts, and that is as clear as black and white.

Eelco van der Enden is the chief executive of Global Reporting Initiative. He has previously held a range of senior roles with listed companies, including head of treasury, risk management and tax.

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