In numbers: The state of corporate sustainability reporting

Over the past 12 months, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has worked with consultancy Radley Yeldar to survey 158 corporates on their approach to sustainability reporting. Here, edie rounds-up the key findings.

Undertaken by Radley Yeldar and commissioned by global advocacy association the WBCSD on Monday (23 October), the Reporting Matters survey asked 158 corporates across 17 sectors a variety of questions about how they report on their carbon emissions, waste outputs, water footprints and social impacts.

After several other recent reports revealed that a huge proportion of companies to have pledged to align their actions with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are yet to set any measurable targets related to the Goals or monitoring progress against them, the survey sheds new light on how the business community is tracking progress on the goals.

It also documents the transition in reporting formats, from paper reports, to downloadable PDFs and interactive webpages, while tracking the corporate trend of moving to integrated sustainability reporting that couples environmental, social and financial data in one document.

Carried out alongside three in-depth explorations of what best practice looks like for modern sustainability reporting, the survey acts as a snapshot on reporting challenges and SDG action. Here, edie rounds up the survey’s key findings. 

1) 89% of businesses are acknowledging the SDGs in reports

After recent research revealed that achieving all 17 of the SDGs in full could add $12trn to the global economy, dozens of big-name corporates have moved to map their actions across the SDGs – including the likes of Tesco, Unilever, Coca-Cola and BT.

Other companies to have aligned their sustainability strategies with the SDGs in recent times are property developer Canary Wharf Group – which is striving to create the world’s first “SDG-compliant” micro-city and beverage giants Pernod Ricard and Diageo. 

As the trend towards SDG alignment continues to gather pace, the 89% of the respondents to the WBCSD survey were found to acknowledge the Global Goals in some way in their latest sustainability report.

2) However, just 15% are measuring contributions to the Goals

However, WBCSD concluded that only 53% were actively mapping their sustainability strategy to SDGs considered relevant to their sector, with just 15% measuring their contribution to the Global Goals.

The findings echo a key talking point of edie’s recent SDG roundtable. During the session, representatives from organisations including Vodafone, The Body Shop and DNV-GL concluded that the majority of corporates were still in “mapping” stage of SDG action – with many choosing to overlay the Goals onto existing CSR strategies – due to a lack of available metrics to measure their impacts.

3) Combined reports increased by 11% last year

The future of sustainability reporting is something of a hot topic at the moment, with corporates and academics alike continuing to argue the case for ditching the standalone sustainability report in favour of an integrated document which combines environmental, social and financial data.

Just this summer, the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) launched a database of 200 academic studies highlighting the potential positive ramifications of adopting integrated reporting, such as higher market valuation, increased stock liquidity and a longer-term investor base.

In the wake of this research, the WBCSD survey found that one-third of the corporate respondents produced combined reports for this financial year – an 11% increase on 2017 figures.

4) Four in 10 businesses call their CSR documents ‘sustainability reports’

The findings come as the likes of KingfisherBunzl and Innocent are making calls for businesses to move away from sustainability “jargon” when addressing consumers, employees and board members, in a bid to drive greater engagement by making the concept relevant at a personal level.

Additionally, only 41% of the respondents titled their latest progress document a “sustainability report” – down from 53% last year.

5) 53% have interactive websites for sustainability

If you’ve searched for a company’s sustainability report in recent months, the odds are that you will have landed on an interactive website rather than being directed to a PDF download portal.

More than half (53%) of the 158 companies to have responded to the WBSCD survey – including global food and beverage giant Nestle – were found to have produced a webpage including the bulk of their sustainability report content in the past financial year. This figure is up from 44% in 2017.

Some of the most innovative digital reports in recent times have come from Virgin Media, which this year utilised multimedia assets with football themes to engage key stakeholders with its latest efforts, in light of the popularity of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. In 2016, meanwhile, the company launched the world’s first 360 sustainability video, which it followed up last year by publishing a string of GIFs, infographics and social media posts in lieu of a hefty PDF.

6) There are 10 times as many reporting requirements now compared to 1992

As well as corporate trends in sustainability reporting, the WBCSD and Radley Yeldar also analysed how global reporting requirements have changed over the past 20 years.

Their research found that there are now ten times as many legally-required ethical social and governance (ESG) reporting requirements for businesses to meet than there were before the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

The survey additionally concluded that the number of voluntary reporting requirements has increased from fewer than 10 to 182 in the past decade, with up to 80% of these being issued by non-governmental organizations.

The results of the survey can be read in full here.

Sarah George

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