Sustainable Development Goals – What are they and why are they important to businesses?
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) were adopted in 2015 by 193 member nations to continue the momentum of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG). In 2000, the MDGs had been adopted by 189 member nations to achieve eight measurable goals that covered decreasing child mortality to eradicating extreme poverty and hunger to promoting gender equality. The target date for achievement was 2015.
Progress was made on the MDGs, but more needs to be done! For example, extreme poverty in the world has been cut in half. There are still many challenges (e.g., substandard education, unaffordable energy, air and water pollution) that must be addressed to create a sustainable world. The adoption of the SDGs provides opportunities for businesses to work on solving these challenges. The SDGs focus on building a sustainable world with an equal emphasis on environmental sustainability, social inclusion, and economic development.
This is a people-centered development framework with active engagement from civil society organizations, citizens, scientists, academics, and the private sector from around the global. In 2015, the SDGs were launched and adopted.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) define global sustainable development priorities and aspirations for 2030 and seek to mobilize global efforts around a common set of goals and targets. The SDGs call for worldwide action among governments, business and civil society to end poverty and create a life of dignity and opportunity for all, within the boundaries of the planet.
One of the most interesting things about the SDGs is the opportunity for business-led solutions. The SDGs can influence the way companies communicate and report their strategies, goals, and activities. There are many benefits to incorporating the SDGs. Here are a few.
Create new products or processes
Enhance the value of corporate sustainability
Strengthen the economic incentives for companies to use resources more efficiently
Strengthen stakeholder relations
Stabilize societies and markets
Use a common language and shared purpose
Here are the 17 SDGs.
Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertication, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
If this brief introduction intrigues you, read my next series of blog posts. In the series, I will showcase each SDG and an example of how a company is already incorporating it in their business. Two of the companies are Unilever and Novo Nordisk AS.
It was a great training with the ISOS Group in Chicago, August 17-18. The training was interactive and provided insights from the trainers and the participants who were from the transportation sector, NGOs, and consultancy firms. If you missed this opportunity, there are more coming. Two new offerings include a GRI Practitioners Specialty Module and Transition from GRI G4 to GRI Standards. Take a look at the upcoming schedule for San Francisco, New York City, and Boulder, Colorado. Hope to see you there!
This meeting is part of the SEC’s process to seek public comment on modernizing certain business and financial disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K. The SEC Concept Release document, Business and Financial Disclosure Required by Regulation S-K, was issued on April 13, 2016 (click here for link). The purpose of this release is to seek input to determine whether SEC business and financial disclosure requirements still provide important information for investors and how registrants can most effectively present this information.
This discussion is an important step as the SEC considers how sustainability information fits into its disclosure requirements. This meeting focused on information that investors receive and in particular sustainability reports or environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reports. In this video you will find a good overview of the history of SEC sustainability disclosures along with existing sustainability reporting frameworks. There are likely to be more discussions in the future. I highly recommend that you watch the video (click here for link). To give you a preview, I have summarized the discussion below.
Over the last several decades, many perspectives and practices on sustainability reporting have come about. Questions raised at the beginning of the discussion provided context for sustainability reporting and SEC disclosures. Some of the questions included:
How do report issuers engage with investors?
How are sustainability issues identified and reported?
What do investors consider important to decision making?
What methods are used by investors and report issuers to determine material issues?
What do investors want?
What should issuers provide?
How much information should be reported and in what format?
How much information should asset owners be demanding and using?
How much should public companies be reporting?
Although these questions were not intended to be answered in this meeting, they do raise relevant concerns regarding what and how sustainability disclosures will be required.
Daniel Goelzer provided an excellent, concise overview of the SEC’s traditional approach to sustainability reporting. This approach, established in the 1970s, was in response to rulemaking petitions and litigation against the commission. The actions were sought to get the agency to adopt a comprehensive disclosure scheme for environmental and equal opportunity disclosures. After public proceedings to gather information, the SEC issued a release in 1975. Daniel Goelzer summarized the four conclusions from the release.
Disclosure requirement must be necessary to protect investors or inform their investment decisions
Disclosure requirement should have economic significance to investors
A small fraction of investors in 1975 used or were motivated by corporate social responsibility so there was no basis to require public companies disclosure of corporate social practices
Even without specific requirements ESG disclosures are sometimes necessary to make other disclosures materially complete or accurate
In a company’s business description, the company has to disclose the material effects that compliance with environmental protection laws may have on capital expenditures, earnings and competitive position and on estimated expenditures for environmental control facilities.
The threshold for disclosing environmental litigation is less than for other types of cases.
Since 1975, the SEC has made required risk factor disclosures more tangible in a company’s Management’s Discussion & Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations (MD&A). Sustainability trends and events have the potential to be material risk factors for a company’s business in terms of financial position (balance sheet) or results of operations (net income). For example, drought and water scarcity could be risk factors for a beverage company that depends on a dependable supply of clean water. After the 1970s, not much changed with regard to sustainability related disclosures for public companies until 2010. The SEC issued an interpretive release on disclosure requirements related to climate change issues. Companies must disclose the impacts of climate change on their business as a result of legislation and regulation, international agreements, and physical impacts. In addition, with the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress directed disclosures that involved conflict minerals, resource extraction payments, and CEO pay ratios.
Outside of the legal requirements, there has been a major increase in corporate voluntary reports that are not filed with the SEC. Stakeholders such as employees, consumers, NGOs and communities are often the intended report users. Across companies and industries, there is considerable variety in the information and formats used in these reports.
Mr. Goelzer had several recommendations for the SEC on how to proceed regarding ESG disclosure. The current focus on investment decision making of the reasonable investor should be maintained. Although the topics that are material to the reasonable investor have changed since 1975, the SEC should retain its definition of materiality (i.e., information significant to the reasonable investor). The SEC needs to take steps to adopt a disclosure framework that takes sustainability information into account. On that note, sustainability reporting should be principles based rather than prescriptive. To reduce its burden, rather than creating its own reporting framework, the SEC should look at existing frameworks available.
Christianna Wood made a compelling presentation for the use of the GRI standards in SEC disclosures. She presented the history of GRI along with its current standing in the world as the leading sustainability reporting framework. Almost 20 years ago, Ceres (a national coalition of investors, environmental organizations and other public interest groups) created the GRI as the world’s first global sustainability reporting framework. According to a KPMG 2015 study, GRI is used by 74% of the Fortune G250 and by 72% of companies reporting on sustainability issues worldwide that publish stand-alone sustainability reports. In addition, there are thousands of organizations spanning all sectors in over 90 countries using the GRI standards. In response to the Commission’s Concept Release on Business and Financial Disclosure Required by Regulation S-K, the GRI outlined three points that would be in its formal response.
The responsibility to determine material sustainability issues lies with the registrant
GRI supports disclosure of all material issues whether they relate to financial or non-financial information
The use of GRI as an existing robust reporting standard increases the utility and comparability of information
The GRI recommends the GRI Standards be used if the SEC requires companies to file sustainability reports given that 74 percent of the largest global companies use the GRI framework. A potential approach is for companies already preparing comprehensive GRI based reports to include these as an Exhibit in their SEC filings.
Jean Rogers provided a thorough presentation on the SASB perspective on disclosing companies’ sustainability matters in SEC filings. SASB, which is an independent 501(c)3 non-profit, issues standards for disclosure of sustainability topics. The purpose of this disclosure is to help public corporations disclose material, decision-useful information to investors in their mandatory filings such as the Forms 10-K or 20-F. Jean Rodgers covered four topics.
Rising investor demand for sustainability information
The current inadequacies of sustainability disclosure
The need for a market standard for the disclosure of material sustainability information 4) SASB’s qualifications to fill this need
Lisa French made an excellent presentation covering the IIRC perspective. The IIRC is a coalition of some 70 organizations around the world representing businesses, investors, policy-makers, the accounting profession and civil society. Its concern is that traditional financial reporting is not providing capital markets the full range of information that could materially affect a company’s value creation in the long run. The IIRC perspective is that the Integrated Reporting Framework is complementary to the existing sustainability and financial reporting frameworks. Rather than issuing standards for performance metrics and methodologies, the IIRC’s focus is on encouraging discussion and connection of a company’s business model, strategy, governance, performance and prospects. The IIRC sees strong alignment between Integrated Reporting and the concepts supporting Management Discussion and Analysis. Lisa French discussed how the three pillar of integrated reporting drive their work. These pillars are
Strategic focus and future orientation,
Simplicity, conciseness and the use of plain language
Connectivity of information Corporate Reporting Experience.
The GE Story
Christoph Pereira presented the GE experience with its Integrated Summary Report and approach to disclosure. The summary report has the CEO letter, summary of 10k, summary of its proxy statement and summarized at information from its sustainability website. Based on feedback to GE, the level of interest in sustainability in the US is focused on the risk factors. GE’s general philosophy for determining whether to disclose something is their consideration of its impact on investors’ ability to underwrite the risks and opportunities of owning GE stock. By including sustainability pages in its Integrated Summary Report, the company sought to answer the following four questions:
How does sustainability relate to its overall business strategy?
What is their governance process for sustainability?
What are sustainability priorities and the process used to pick them?
What is their progress on the stated sustainability priorities?
Their approach on reporting focuses on the process in order to provide flexibility as sustainability reporting evolves over time.
The discussion following the presentations is great as well.
Last week in Washington DC, I participated in a World Bank Conference on Subnational Reporting: Strengthening Governance Systems through Nonfinancial Reporting. This event, which was organized by Monika Kumar and Lydia Habhab, provided information about the importance of nonfinancial reporting for subnational governments units (e.g., cities).
My role involved writing a framing paper for the conference. In the paper, I discussed many of the relevant issues for nonfinancial reporting at the subnational government level. I want to share some of issues in this blog.
What is nonfinancial reporting and why is it important?
Nonfinancial reporting covers a wide range of areas such as performance measurement and sustainability reporting. Nonfinancial metrics are important because they complement financial reporting by providing a systems view of an organization. Financial reporting is essential but insufficient to assessing and addressing economic, environmental, and social risks. Reporting on social and environment impacts are keys to understanding progress toward sustainable development. Nonfinancial metrics such as a city’s greenhouse gas emissions or workforce composition can provide information that is relevant to assessing an organization’s opportunities and risks associated with its operating activities. Poor air quality is only one of the risks that cities face. The curbing of greenhouse gas emissions can go a long way in reducing health consequences for citizens in a city. Measuring and managing these emissions should be part of the governing process. These nonfinancial metrics provide information that has major consequences for financial resources. Prevention costs are usually much less expensive than cleanup ones.
Why are subnational governments relevant to this discussion?
Cities are becoming the focal point of addressing the effects of climate change, inequality, poverty, hunger, and problems for humanity. In 2014, slightly over half of the world’s population was living in urban areas with the expectation that it would be 66 percent by 2050. Because of the resources they use and services they provide, city governments have the opportunity to have positive impacts on sustainable development. Problems that affect local areas may vary substantially within one country because of vastly different environmental and social influences in the different regions. City governments deal with local issues and can often identify needed services. The issues and problems need to be examined at the local level to be addressed most effectively. To assess the issues, there is a need for nonfinancial reporting at the subnational level.
What are some of the important factors that might be reported?
City governments depend on a variety of resources or inputs such as environmental capital (e.g., water, biodiversity), social capital (e.g., common values, reputation), human capital (e.g., people’s competencies, experience), intellectual capital (e.g., patents, software), and manufactured capital (e.g., buildings, infrastructure). Metrics that provide information about these factors can be useful in addressing global problems of climate change, human rights violations, poverty, and human development.
There are numerous useful reporting frameworks that are available for nonfinancial reporting. The CDP is an example of a nonprofit organization that collects environmental and social information from companies and city and national governments on single topics such as emissions, water risk, supply chains, and forests. Other organizations that provide city-specific sustainability reporting tools include the Compact of Mayors and ICLEI. In addition, voluntary guidelines and standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Sustainability Reporting Standards and Integrated Reporting <IR> Framework are continually updating their frameworks to keep pace with the demand for sustainability-related information. Both are adaptable to cities’ needs. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has published ISO 37120, Sustainable development of communities — Indicators for city services and quality of life. It is intended as a means “…to help city managers, politicians, researchers, business leaders, planners, designers and other professionals to focus on key issues, and put in place policies for more livable, tolerant, sustainable, resilient, economically attractive and prosperous cities.”
These issues were discussed at the World Bank Conference chaired by Samia Msadek, Director, Governance Global Practice World Bank.
The panel of experts included the following people:
Bill Baue is co-founder of several organizations including: ThriveAbility Foundation, Reporting 3.0, Sustainability Context Group.Bill has also authored several publications, including A Leader’s Guide to ThriveAbility; Hairshirts, Rattlesnakes, and Shoelaces: Toward A Net Positive Movement; and Raising the Bar – Advancing Environmental Disclosure in Sustainability Reporting. He teaches in the Marlboro Sustainability MBA, and serves on the Technical Advisory Group of the WWF / WRI / CDP /UNGC Science Based Targets initiative. He blogs for Huffington Post, Sustainable Business and Sustainable Brands, where he also co-curates the #NewMetrics Channel.
John Morrill is the energy manager for Arlington County, Virginia. Arlington County is a signatory of the Compact of Mayors and has established sustainability goals. John leads a broad portfolio of work in energy management and policy, including climate mitigation and resilience. In 2008 he won a Climate Protection Award from the U.S. EPA for his work on the Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy (AIRE), the county’s climate action program that now implements Arlington’s Community Energy Plan. John serves on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council (VAEEC), and also the Virginia Energy Purchasing Governmental Association (VEPGA). Prior to joining the County, John held a variety of research and management positions during 17 years with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) in Washington DC.
Punji Leagnavar is the Manager of Sustainable Development Policy and Government Affairs at GRI where she leads GRI’s program on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and oversees GRI’s engagement with governments. She has over a decade of experience in sustainable development and mitigation, working for organizations such as the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Environment Program.
Monali Ranade is Senior Operations Officer, World Bank Climate Change. Ms. Ranade focuses on Knowledge Engagement and Innovations to scale-up low carbon development and green growth and to strengthen participation of private-sector.Prior to this, Ms. Ranade worked with the Carbon Finance Unit of the World Bank developing methodologies and programmatic approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Energy and Urban sectors. Prior to joining the World Bank, Ms. Ranade worked with United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and as a Consultant to the Ministry of Environment & Forest, Government of India. Ms. Ranade started her career as a small business owner, moving on to a social marketing company focused on rural consumers, followed by several years with the International Institute for Energy Conservation (IIEC) providing consulting services to government agencies. Ms. Ranade’s educational background is in Mathematics and Economics.
I am looking forward to serving on the AICPA Assurance Services Executive Committee (ASEC) Sustainability Assurance and Advisory Task Force. I will be attending my first meeting in June at the AICPA offices in NYC. The Task Force is charged with addressing member needs and opportunities as they relate to the reporting and assurance of sustainability-related information. This task force works in coordination with the Auditing Standards Board (ASB) Sustainability Task Force and the ASB Conflict Minerals Task Force. Both of these groups work on AICPA standards development, technical guidance and comment letters related to assurance on Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions and Conflict Minerals, respectively.
In a future blog, I will talk about my experiences serving on this important task force.