Is the future of sustainability reporting just a relentless treadmill of rising stakeholder expectations, more demanding frameworks, more transparency and more investment? Or are we approaching an inflexion point, where the mismatch between all these requirements and the budgets available to meet them, mean something’s got to give?
To find out, Anthesis brought together a group of around 20 reporting and communications professionals from some of the world’s largest companies, for a Chatham-House style debate about ‘Peak Reporting’, in London last week. What did we learn? Though firm predictions about the shape of reporting five years from now were scarce, there was a surprising degree of consensus on some important trends.
1. Investors are getting more engaged and more intelligent – they want data but they also want to see relevance and connection to strategy. With several participants from financial institutions or involved in the investor/analyst community, the conversation turned to what it is the money people really want. Some crude screening by passive investors will continue to rely on “brutal” scoring from Bloomberg, MSCI, Sustainalytics etc, so you need to make sure the data is right and up to date. But the smart money is looking at governance, commercial strategy, risk mitigation, materiality – the whole business. It seems investors and their proxies are aware that future return is more likely to come from companies serious about purpose and their distinctive potential for impact. And while both mandatory and voluntary disclosures are moving in this direction – e.g. via the EU Non-Financial Reporting Directive (NFRD) and the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) – reporting that just ticks the framework boxes won’t communicate the full story.
Key takeaways: make sure your sustainability data is accurate, up to date, and easily accessible because investors are using whatever publicly available information they can find to compare you with your competitors; and make sure information on your risks/opportunities, strategy, and governance are clear as investors are looking for this information as a guide to whether you’re a solid, long-term investment.
2. The complicated landscape of frameworks, mandatory expectations etc. is not going to go away – and focusing on why you are reporting – with a clear sense of the business value you expect – is the best guide to decision making on what approach to use. More than one participant took the view that frameworks in general, and GRI in particular, can end up as a box-ticking exercise to meet the requirements of the standard, rather than a driver of value for the reporter or of relevant transparency for stakeholders. Materiality also turns out to be a two way street for the frameworks – as one participant put it “when GRI started talking about reporting against materiality I’m not sure they realized organizations would use it assess reporting frameworks too”. Whether there will be a simplification of the framework landscape any time soon remains to be seen, but around the table, nobody was holding their breath.
Key takeaway: frameworks still matter, but they should serve your purpose. If you can’t explain to your CEO how they add value, consider a new approach.
3. Materiality, strategy, purpose and your authentic story are still better starting points than any framework. Data and frameworks can support your case, not make it for you. The rapid uptake of the SDGs was much discussed by our group. Some like them as they connect the company project to a clear, agreed set of global priorities. Others worry that they are too vague or tangential to business to be a useful way to hold a company to account. Either way, they aren’t enough on their own as the basis of an authentic and compelling report.
Key takeaway: purpose and materiality are the pole stars for reporting and it’s worth getting both straight before getting into the detail.
4. Integration of financial and non-financial considerations is part of mainstreaming, but a single report may never be enough to satisfy all stakeholders. For the pioneers of integrated reporting, this may have come as a bit of a disappointment. One participant in our discussion is even in the process of unravelling their integrated report to give sustainability the focus it needs. Integration is not going away, but integrated reporting may not be the only future. It may well be more resource-intensive than a two-report approach, and IIRC’s capitals model may not fit the way your organization thinks about the world.
Key takeaway: think hard about what you are trying to achieve and who it is you want to talk to before you opt for integrated reporting.
5. Communicating in real time, being more conversational, open, transparent are all part of the future. There’s a world of audiences beyond the ‘usual suspect’ list of investors and professional stakeholders. Around the table, people were considering all manner of new ways to engage target groups amongst suppliers, staff, recruits, millennials, consumers and citizens. Virtual Reporting (headsets on!), social media and crowdsourcing might all be part of a new, integrated communications approach. It’s also OK to admit that you can’t control everything, and there’s good anecdotal evidence audiences appreciate honesty and humility about failures, difficulties, and changing priorities. Where that leaves the report as a single, definitive statement about performance in the previous year is another question.
Key takeway: communications planning should run in parallel with the reporting process, and inform everything from the story to the metrics to the messages and choice of channels.
We’ll continue to support this debate in the coming months and years, and particularly provide a space for reporters to share their concerns and hopes for the future direction of reporting. If you’d like to join the conversation, please contact Ben at Ben.Tuxworth@anthesisgroup.com, or alternatively, use our fill out form below: