Europe focuses on the role of corporate reporting in transition towards sustainable development

Brandenburg Gate in BerlinHaving advocated for many years that corporate reporting could, should and must play a significant role in the transition towards sustainability, it is pleasing to see the topic at centre stage during a fortnight in Europe at workshops, conferences and other meetings in Amsterdam, Glasgow, Berlin and Geneva including the UNCTAD workshop on the Future Direction of the Corporate Reporting Model, the Reporting 3.0 conference and the 6th International conference on corporate social responsibility and sustainability.

It is also a fortnight in which the Council of the European Union issued a press release announcing that on the 29th September the Council approved the Directive setting out new transparency rules on social responsibility for large companies.  EU listed companies, and some unlisted public interest companies with more than 500 employees, will have to disclose information on policies, risks and results as regards environmental matters, social and employee-related aspects, respect for human rights, anti-corruption and bribery issues and diversity on boards of directors.  This is an important step.

My research has consistently demonstrated that corporate accountability for key social and environmental impacts would not be achieved unless mandated (see, for example, Adams, 2004 on the corporate reporting-performance portrayal gap).

The announcement came as I joined other GRI Stakeholder Council members for a biannual meeting in Amsterdam.  The GRI Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, along with the frameworks of the United Nations Global Compact, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, OECD Guidelines, International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 26000 and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Tripartite Declaration are referenced in the Directive.

This week I’m in Berlin for the Reporting 3.0 organised by BSD Consulting and the 6th International conference on corporate social responsibility and sustainability organised by Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.

Reporting 3.0 will consider the future of sustainability reporting, the conference brochure noting the “need for consolidation and convergence in a fragmented sustainability reporting market.”  International speakers from different stakeholder groups in the reporting landscape will consider the role of sustainability reporting and its impact on the world, the company and other stakeholders.  A team of rapporteurs, of which I’m one, will document the obstacles, drivers and innovations for change coming out of the presentations.

The theme of the 6th International conference on corporate social responsibility and sustainability is ‘innovating for sustainability’.  Professor Dr Joachim Schwalbach notes in the conference brochure: “Given the challenge to global sustainability incremental improvements are not enough. Instead, sustainability driven creative destruction improves the likelihood of improving companies’ and societies’ value creation.”  I’m chairing a panel of expert speakers which will consider: the contribution of reporting standards and frameworks to making companies more socially and environmentally responsible; and, how reporting frameworks contribute to realising business benefits from social and environmental sustainability initiatives, management and governance processes.

Perhaps, most promising in terms of potential for change outside as well as within Europe, the objectives of UNCTAD workshop on the Future Direction of the Corporate Reporting Model  are: “To share perspectives on recent developments in corporate reporting models with a view to promoting a cohesive approach to corporate financial and non-financial reporting and enhancing its positive impact on sustainable development.”  Speakers include senior representatives from key standard setting bodies, the accounting profession, the World Bank and UNEP.   The questions debated will consider the challenges for corporate reporting in the post-2015 development agenda and the role of reporting in achieving Sustainable Development Goals. I look forward to moderating the final debate on the future direction of the corporate reporting model.

Companies have played a significant part in global inequality of wealth distribution and environmental degradation and corporate reporting has not held them to account.  These are therefore important developments occurring now as a result of many individuals and initiatives working for change over the last few decades.

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