Welcome to the third wave of sustainability reporting

With reporting now mandatory, corporate responsibility takes center stage.

Feb 15, 2024

Key takeaways

Goodwill gestures are out, regulations are in: Mandatory reporting redefines corporate responsibility. 

From PR brochures to independent audits: Transparency and accountability are the new sustainability currency.

Symbolic actions fade, measurable impact thrives: The future demands proof, not just promises.  

Global strategy ESG Business strategy Sustainability

Corporate actions are under the microscope as never before. The evolution of sustainability reporting is a testament to how business responsibility has transformed from a peripheral concern to a central strategy. This journey, marked by increasing rigor and scrutiny, reflects a profound shift in expectations and accountability.

Gone are the days when the reporting around corporate responsibility was a mere supplement to annual reports, often driven by public relations and offering little substantive content. Today, as we navigate the third wave of sustainability reporting, the landscape is vastly different. This change is not just about how companies report their actions but how these actions align with a broader societal shift toward sustainability and accountability.

The first wave: Corporate social responsibility

The roots of sustainability reporting are in corporate social responsibility (CSR), a concept as noble in intent as it was initially vague in execution. In its embryonic stage, CSR was predominantly a philanthropic endeavor, in which businesses sought to showcase their benevolence through charitable acts and community engagement. CSR saw companies engaging in acts of goodwill largely detached from their core business operations.

These early CSR efforts focused on “giving back” to society, often manifested in donating, sponsoring community events and supporting nonprofits. CSR reports from this era frequently resembled glossy brochures, showcasing the company's philanthropic efforts rather than reflecting its operational impact on society and the environment. While fostering goodwill, this approach lacked strategic integration and depth, addressing little of the systemic issues involved in environmental stewardship, social justice, or corporate governance.

The second wave: ESG's rise and the fiduciary awakening

The turn of the millennium ushered in the second wave, marked by the transition from CSR to ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting. This period witnessed the alignment of sustainability with corporate strategy, as businesses came to recognize that long-term success and risk management are inextricably linked to responsible environmental and social practices.

A significant development of this era was the creation of ESG reporting frameworks such as the Global Reporting Initiative, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures. These frameworks provided much-needed structure, enabling companies to standardize and deepen their sustainability reporting.

During this period, financial institutions played a key role in the proliferation of ESG across the economy. Financial institutions developed sustainability-linked products and approaches to integrating ESG into investment analysis. Their efforts were enabled by data aggregated by various organizations, including those that provided ESG ratings.

Moreover, there was a growing realization that integrating ESG factors aligned with fiduciary responsibility. Investors and corporate boards viewed sustainability not just as a moral imperative but as a cornerstone of risk management and value creation.

The third wave: Regulation and the new normal

Today, the third wave is transforming the landscape of corporate sustainability. A shift from voluntary to mandatory reporting characterizes this era. A few examples include the European Union's Corporate Non-Financial Reporting Directive and its subsequent Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive; the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's proposed climate-related disclosure rules; and California’s climate-related disclosure laws, which apply to public and larger private companies. All are indicative of a broader, more stringent regulatory environment.

A significant aspect of this wave is the introduction of assurance-related requirements, mandating companies to have their sustainability metrics verified by independent third parties. These requirements increase data transparency, accuracy, and consistency, enabling better decision-making through greater trust in data.

Adding to the stakes of this new era is the introduction of penalties for noncompliance. Regulators are imposing fines, legal sanctions and other punitive measures on companies that fail to meet new ESG reporting standards. These penalties are not merely financial; they also include reputational risks, which can have long-lasting impact on a company's brand and stakeholder trust. This underscores how seriously governments and regulatory bodies view corporate sustainability, transforming it from a voluntary exercise in goodwill to a mandatory aspect of corporate governance, subject to strict oversight and consequences.

The road ahead

The integration of ESG factors into core business strategies is increasingly complex and resource-intensive. The pressure is mounting for companies to not only report but also demonstrate the tangible impacts of their sustainability initiatives. The future hints at more standardized reporting, the enhanced use of technology and a stronger emphasis on measurable impact rather than intent.

The third wave of sustainability reporting heralds a new era in corporate governance and corporate sustainability. This era, marked by stringent regulations and heightened global scrutiny, compels companies to move beyond symbolic gestures to meaningful actions. As the corporate world navigates this new landscape, the message is clear: The era of unvalidated company commitments is over, and the time for authentic sustainability has arrived.

RSM contributors

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