Sustainability reporting is a communication method for businesses to report on their social and environmental performance and declare their commitment to sustainability goals. Over the past forty years, the concept of sustainability reporting has gained significant momentum. Depending on their firm size, media visibility and ownership structure, it has become essential for businesses to operate, making existing EHS departments a necessity to achieve high quality sustainability reporting and monitoring.
The idea of communicating social and environmental impacts and goals has evolved from simply improving reputation through reporting on compliance to voluntary reporting and tracking progress using the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability reporting has played a large role in the evolution of business to provide solutions to sustainable development issues globally, simply by operating on ethical and environmental standards.
Past & Present of Sustainability Reporting
The advent of sustainability reporting began in the 1980s when businesses began to report on their environmental impacts for the sake of improving their brand image. It was predominantly the ill-reputed chemicals industry that had to change the way the world viewed them after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984, where at least 30 tons of methyl isocyanate gas killed more than 15,000 people and affected over 600,000 workers. For that reason, they began reporting on non-financial data, particularly environmental data. Soon, smaller companies with good technology on data collection and EHS management systems started reporting on environmental data.
Now, global asset management firms, specifically, are expressive of their demands on greater sustainability disclosure, especially on climate risk and impacts, by companies. Further, in 2019, 90% of the largest 500 companies by market cap in the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) index published sustainability reports, according to the Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc and the numbers are expected to increase every year.
The drivers of sustainability reporting encompass more than just reputational risk, but also employee expectations, consumer opinion, and investor assessment: all aiming towards the bottom line and eventually, increased access to capital.
Where sustainability reporting and EHS intersect
At present, several standards on sustainability reporting exist and of these, the most universal and recognized standards are:
- Global Reporting Initiative (GRI): focused on corporate social responsibility, giving equal weight to environment, social and governance factors
- Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB): focused specifically on US public companies
- The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP): focused on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also includes water and forestry issues
Universal reporting standards like GRI and SASB require businesses to report on energy consumption, water consumption, waste generation, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, labor conditions, procurement, and product sourcing. Technically, these are all issues reported and monitored by experienced EHS departments for decades.
The Future of EHS and Sustainability Reporting: Partnered Together
Every year, sustainability reporting standards are becoming more rigorous through reporting standards. Companies are being pushed towards committing to tougher goals to stay relevant and businesses that don’t update themselves with the requirements of reporting, would be left behind or not valued by investors. Therefore, it has become necessary for businesses to equip, prepare, and advance EHS departments for the purpose of data collection, monitoring and troubleshooting of sustainability and ESG metrics.
Initially, businesses kept Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) departments and EHS departments separate from each other and did not recognize the intersection between the two. But now, Corporate Social Responsibility as a term has become redundant itself. CSR is perceived to be backward-looking and reflects on what a business should contribute to society for the sake of gaining social permission to operate. Instead of CSR, businesses are moving towards sustainability, which is proactive, futuristic and recognizes businesses as a part of society, not separate from it. This perception of sustainability makes it much easier to understand its intersection with EHS.
Some large businesses have begun to integrate both EHS and sustainability management departments into unified programs, recognizing the opportunities gained when combined. Cost savings and revenue opportunities are just a few reasons for combining the two functions. Eventually, when sustainability metrics will hold equal importance to corporate metrics, the EHS and sustainability management functions can be expected to become part of core business strategy and operations. The future will then evolve from sustainability towards embedded sustainability.
For now, this is an important time for global EHS professionals to take advantage of the opportunities presented. By timely and accurate monitoring of sustainability metrics through combined EHS-Sustainability Management functions, businesses will be able to quickly identify and manage risks more effectively. This will lead to greater satisfaction for all interior and exterior stakeholders and a safer and healthier environment for us all.
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Experienced in corporate sustainability in both developed and emerging markets, Fatima Fasih has over 5 years of experience in advising businesses on their sustainability strategies and reporting. She also assists businesses in identifying their progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Currently, working as an independent Sustainability Consultant, Fatima holds a Masters degree in Sustainability Management and Bachelors in Health Sciences and Environmental Science from the University of Toronto.
She is also certified a Greenhouse Gas Inventory Quantifier (GHG-IQ) and aims to work towards pushing businesses to play a larger role in solving the world’s biggest sustainable development problems: hunger, poverty, and inequality.