The Conference Board Governance Center Blog


Communicating and Engaging on Sustainability

By Thomas Singer, Researcher, Corporate Leadership, The Conference Board

While corporate sustainability reporting is on the rise, much debate continues to exist around the specifics of reporting as well as corporate engagement with stakeholders on this topic. A new publication from The Conference Board brings together recent research from subject experts to help guide companies on these issues and help corporate directors understand how their peers are communicating and engaging on sustainability.

The report, Sustainability Matters 2013: How Companies Communicate and Engage on Sustainability, presents leading research on interrelated topics on corporate sustainability disclosure. The annual report is a curated collection of select Director Notes – executive-length publications in which The Conference Board engages experts in an open dialogue about topical issues of concern to member companies – released over the past year. This year’s report features 11 authors representing eight research and academic institutions: Harvard Business School, Warwick Business School, North Dakota State University, University of Denver, Copenhagen Business School, Ryerson University, Northwestern University, and The Conference Board.

Each section of the report addresses a different sustainability disclosure challenge that company directors are facing. Challenges such as what metrics to disclose, how to engage with stakeholders, and how reporting is likely to evolve in the near future. The report is designed to serve as a reference both for companies that are just embarking on their sustainability journey as well as those that have been reporting for several decades.

The report offers a combination of data and qualitative insights to help guide corporate directors and senior managers in charge of sustainability issues. Some highlights from the report include:

  • In a global sample of 3,000 companies the sustainability metrics most widely disclosed were policy-related. These include practices such as the presence of a business ethics policy, energy efficiency policy, and health and safety policy. On the other hand, the rate of disclosure of minorities in management, employee turnover, and environmental fines is very low.
  • Social metrics tend to be less disclosed than economic and environmental metrics. In an analysis of 94 Canadian sustainability reports, 42 percent of corporate metrics reported were classified as economic metrics, 33 percent were environmental metrics, and 25 percent were classified as social metrics.
  • There is a growing need for collaboration between sustainability standards. A plethora of unconnected sustainability standards is likely to confuse global brand companies and their local suppliers. In the long run, the global marketplace may not be able to support a variety of isolated initiatives.
  • When communicating on sustainability, companies too often rely on ambiguous language and broad generalizations about the benefits of their sustainability initiatives.
  • Conferences and questionnaire-based surveys represent the most frequent forms of stakeholder dialogue initiatives by U.S. companies.
  • Shareholder support is growing for proposals requesting companies publish sustainability reports. In 2008, average for votes for proposals on sustainability reporting was 14 percent, compared to 23.8 percent in 2012.
  • The highly ranked countries for integrating both environmental and social information in their reporting are in Europe and Brazil. Besides the United States and Canada, most of the low-ranked countries are in Asia.

A KnowlEdge Series of webcasts scheduled for April will feature the co-authors of the report, offering an opportunity to learn more about these issues and interact directly with experts on these topics.

Members of The Conference Board can download the report online. If others are interested, please contact Marcel Bucsescu, manager of The Conference Board Governance Center.

About the Blogger:

Thomas Singer, Researcher, Corporate Leadership The Conference Board

Thomas Singer, Researcher, Corporate Leadership The Conference Board

Thomas Singer is a researcher in corporate leadership at The Conference Board. His research focuses on corporate social responsibility and sustainability issues. In addition to his work at The Conference Board, Singer serves as an independent consultant advising on corporate sustainability strategy.

Prior to joining The Conference Board, Singer worked with Blu Skye Sustainability Consulting and SustainAbility, helping clients embed sustainability into their core business. Over his career, he has supported engagements with industry leaders across sectors, focusing on strategy development, opportunity assessment, competitive analysis, and stakeholder engagement.

He began his career as a management consultant with Kaiser Associates, advising clients on white space opportunities, competitive analysis, and benchmarking. Singer is a graduate of Tufts University.

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