Navigating the Rapids of Sustainability Reporting

By: Jenny Robertson
Jul 8, 2015 12:05 PM ET
Campaign: AT&T: Planet

Navigating the Rapids of Sustainability Reporting

My first (and only) experience white-water rafting, I was separated from the boat, sucked under by a rapid current and shot out about 50 yards downstream. I’m a fairly strong swimmer, but still had a moment of panic when I realized I couldn’t tell which way was up.

I was reminded of this experience attending several meetings this month in New York City on sustainability reporting and non-financial disclosures. Listening to legal scholars and accounting experts at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham University, and investors at NASDAQ headquarters, it was clear — the current is swiftly picking up speed for corporate ESG (environment, social, governance) reporting.

The conversations drove home that more external stakeholders — including both socially responsible and mainstream investors — are seeking and using company sustainability information. This was heartening for someone in my position, responsible for AT&T’s reporting efforts; hurrah, this information is important! But it also poses the challenge: what is the right way to report?

We are mired in an alphabet soup of sustainability disclosure standards: GRI, IIRC, CDP, SASB, and GISR; internal emails requesting information of my colleagues sometime feel like a game of “Name That Acronym!” One presentation highlighted the existence of more than 350 sustainability ratings, about two-thirds investor-focused and the remaining consumer-focused. Combined, they cover more than 10,000 indicators, many of which are coming with increasing expectations of accounting-level assurance.

Back to my rafting experience, I did eventually remember my guide’s caution to remain calm and let the river carry you. Fighting the current only leads to exhaustion. I popped out safely on the other side (many thanks to my helmet) and joined my friends back in the boat to finish out the day.

It’s similar with survey fatigue. My corporate peers and I are constantly assessing how we can meet stakeholder needs for information, while juggling resources and trying to report as efficiently as possible. Which ratings and rankings meet the widest audience? Which are most credible? How do we find the most impactful indicators that stakeholders need to assess our performance? And at the end of the day, isn’t it good to know that all this activity demonstrates a growing, active and interested field in sustainability?

Ultimately, I’ve realized that just as you think you’ve figured out the waters, the rocks and jetties are going to pop up. Hopefully you’ve got a boat full of teammates to help you paddle. And maybe a life jacket.