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Investor engagement, regulation, and societal expectations are driving increasing awareness and action on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance. These drivers challenge organizations and their chief financial officers (CFOs) to enhance reporting and disclosure, and address ESG factors as an everyday part of decision making.

But how should organizations provide meaningful and specific disclosures for ESG issues? What significant initiatives and frameworks are available to help and how might organizations use these to ensure that reporting and disclosure is useful for users?

Reporting ESG: Progress and Pressures

Investors continue to increase their engagement with ESG issues since IFAC published Investor Demand for Environmental, Social, and Governance Disclosures in 2012. Since then, the number of signatories to the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investment topped 1,200 with an increasing number of mainstream, US-based asset owners and managers onboard. Although the amount invested in assets governed by sustainable investing strategies is increasing substantially, increasing numbers of mainstream asset owners and managers are adapting their approaches and methods to integrate ESG into their risk, valuation, and performance analysis.

Furthermore, some investors directly engage regulators and companies on specific ESG matters. This, plus engagement with company management and proxy voting, is higher than ever before and frequently covers specific ESG matters, or addresses a general lack of publicly available information on ESG policies and performance.

Two examples in the US highlight rising investor concern and subsequent action.

Investors wrote to Chevron’s management to request additional information on preparations for potential scenarios where demand for oil and gas greatly decreases due to regulation or other climate-associated drivers. And a group of investors, concerned that misleading disclosures may be driving investment in unclean energy sources, wrote to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to request that the Commission evaluate the disclosures of certain registrants in the bioenergy industry for consistency with the Commission’s disclosure rules and 2010 Climate Guidance.

Governments, exchanges, and regulators are also working to drive responsible business practices. The 2013 edition of Carrots and Sticks, Promoting Transparency and Sustainability highlights 180 national reporting policies and initiatives, two-thirds of which are mandatory and mainly affect state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Mandatory and voluntary approaches often overlap but work to create traction. This proliferation of rules and regulations spans many jurisdictions. In the last year or so, the US legislated the Dodd Frank Act to cover conflict minerals, safety disclosures, resource extraction payments disclosures, and the proposed rule for pay ratio disclosure.

In India, voluntary guidelines have been adopted to encourage responsible business; but the top 100-listed companies and state-owned enterprises are now required to report on sustainability as well as enacting a controversial 2% corporate social responsibility (CSR) spending requirement.

Policy drivers are also a key feature in China, where the government has set a tone for improving corporate responsibility. The rapid increase in China of company and SOE sustainability reports in recent years was driven by China’s efforts to develop their capital markets, which involved using exchanges as a mechanism to encourage sustainable business practices. The 2006 Social Responsibility Guidelines for Listed Companies of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, the Notice of Improving Listed Companies’ Assumption of Social Responsibilities of the Shanghai Stock Exchange in 2008, and the CSR Guideline by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission in 2008 all have led to more reporting in China.

So the good news is that mandatory and voluntary approaches have led to an increase in ESG disclosures across most jurisdictions. However, the big challenge remains providing meaningful and specific disclosures about material ESG issues. Increased reporting too often leads to boilerplate disclosure or too much disclosure on issues that are not central to the strategy and business model of an organization.

What Initiatives and Frameworks are Available to Help?

Three significant initiatives should help to deal with this challenge.

1. The Global Reporting Initiative’s G4 version of its Reporting Framework helps organizations provide greater clarity on material non-financial drivers and impacts, including those in the supply chain. Each organization determines its most material factors to be incorporated into both strategy and reporting. The emphasis on what is material encourages organizations to provide only information that is critical to their business and stakeholders.

2. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, a US-based initiative, is developing material sector-specific key performance indicators. It brings together experts in each and uses a public consultation process to develop standard material measures designed for disclosure in mandatory SEC filings, such as the Form 10-K and 20-F.

3. The International Integrated Reporting Council’s International Integrated Reporting Framework facilitates smarter reporting focused on how value is created over time, rather than on financial performance in the short term. The Framework covers a comprehensive range of capitals—or resources—an organization uses or affects.

How Can Organizations Get the Most Out of These?

The key question for organizations is how to use these initiatives and frameworks to ensure that reporting and disclosure is useful for users. A starting point is to recognize that the management filter for materiality in terms of what is driving sustainable organizational success is not the same as the materiality concept for financial disclosures. As Eric Hespenheide and Dinah Koehler  of Deloitte put it, “The traditional interpretation of financial statement materiality does not adequately capture non-financial business drivers.”

The management filter requires applying the collective mind of the governing body and management to focus on those significant and few issues that really matter. This is done in respect to the legitimate and reasonable needs, interests, and expectations of the organization and its stakeholders. As Professor Mervyn King, a leading figure in global move toward integrated reporting, puts it “In making a decision on behalf of the organization, while taking account of these expectations, the governing body is guided by the principle of acting in the best interests of the company for the maximization of the total value of the company.”

Significant and material issues will affect, or be affected by, the organization’s strategy and its business model. These issues are material impacts on the organization, stakeholders, and society that the organization must address and communicate clearly and concisely to external audiences.

In some instances, significant issues can be linked to cash flow and other measures of financial performance. But the link is not always clear due to uncertainties in timing, magnitude, etc. However, a well-managed organization should identify and understand these significant issues recognizing that some may not have an immediate impact. Investors and other stakeholders are looking for meaningful information on these significant matters and how the organization is dealing with them as it is these issues that will ultimately determine how the organization will continue to deliver sustainable value over time.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced to communicating clearly and concisely how your organization creates sustainable value?

Stathis Gould

Director, Member Engagement and PAIB

Stathis Gould is responsible for IFAC member engagement and leads IFAC’s advocacy for professional accountants working in business (PAIB) and the public sector. A key element of his work is developing thought leadership and guidance in support of enhancing the recognition of and confidence in professional accountants as CFOs, business leaders, and value partners in the context of sustainability/ESG, data and digital transformation, and other emerging business trends and issues.

Before joining IFAC, Stathis worked at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), where he was responsible for planning and overseeing a program of policy and research that promoted and developed management accountancy. Prior to serving the accountancy profession, he worked in various roles in the private and public sectors in the UK. There, Stathis delivered financial and performance management in the National Health Service and worked for a technology company responsible for delivering the localization of software and content across the globe.

Stathis holds a BA in European Business Studies, an MBA (with distinction), and a postgraduate certificate in Environmental Management, Economics, and Policy. He is a member of the Institute of Management Accountants.