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Current corporate sustainability reporting misses mark, says study

Sustainability reports
Companies   Guidelines from the Global Reporting Initiative

A new study finds that corporate sustainability reporting often focuses on issues that are unimportant to stakeholders, and offers specific suggestions to improve the content of future corporate sustainability reporting efforts.

"Right now, most corporate entities rely on guidelines from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) when developing their sustainability reports," says Marianne Bradford, a professor of accounting at North Carolina State University and lead author of a paper on the work.

"We wanted to know whether stakeholders – particularly consumers – care about the aspects of sustainability those GRI guidelines promote. And our findings show that it's a mixed bag."

"These findings are important because industry standards on sustainability reporting are evolving," says Scott Showalter, a co-author of the paper and professor of practice at NC State.

"As a result, it's valuable to have a good understanding of the sustainability issues important to consumers, who are the most important, influential group of corporate stakeholders. "And these results are also timely," Showalter adds.

"The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board is currently developing measures for 70 different industries. To move forward with those efforts without considering the needs of all stakeholders would be a mistake, and our study offers insight into the perspective of a very important group of stakeholders."

To determine the issues important to consumers, the researchers first compiled data on sustainability reporting from 15 companies in wide range of industries, ultimately amassing a list of 145 types of activities that companies reported. They then winnowed the list down to 71 activities that were unambiguously associated with one of the six GRI sustainability "dimensions."

Such dimensions include "economic," such as reducing trade barriers; "product responsibility," such as disclosing serious accidents related to products; and "environment," such as utilizing renewable energy resources.

The researchers then surveyed 505 professionals, asking survey participants to what extent they thought each of the 71 sustainability activities was important to sustainability.

Specifically, survey respondents were asked to answer the questions in their role as consumers, rather than in any professional capacity.

"An in-depth analysis found that some of the GRI dimensions did not resonate with consumers at all – particularly the economic and product responsibility dimensions," Bradford says.


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