Why the accounting sector needs to adopt universal sustainability frameworks.
As the threat of climate change mounts, Audit International know that businesses must take steps to counter its damaging effects. This is in order to meet ambitious government Net Zero targets, which aim to halve emissions in a little over a decade.
The promising news is that the majority of organisations now understand that sustainability must be made a priority when it comes to devising their overall strategy.
However, companies are often left in the dark as to how best to report on their ESG credentials in a way that’s impactful and means something to shareholders and other stakeholders. It’s clear that what’s needed is a uniform set of standards for measurement and reporting, just as there is for financial performance. This is particularly prevalent in the Accounting sector, where calls are increasingly being made to introduce universal and transparent ESG standards.
However, the world of sustainability reporting is a confusing and often disparate mass of names and frameworks. They include the Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB), the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).
The good news is that a forerunner has emerged that promises to offer a single source of truth when it comes to ESG reporting. It is called the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB). The ISSB will do for sustainability reporting what the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) does for financial reporting. That is, develop standards for companies to report their performance to investors. Both will be under the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation umbrella.
Where did the new framework originate and what exactly is it?
Created at 2021’s COP26, ISSB will provide a global baseline for high-quality sustainability reporting that supports the work being done in the US by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the European Union (EU)’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD).
The ISSB is focused on ‘single materiality’ or the ESG information that drives valuation and matters most to investors. This is also the focus of the SEC and so the mandates are consistent. In contrast, the CSRD has a broader ‘double materiality’ mandate, which means it will cover information of interest to stakeholders, even if it is not of interest to investors. Linking the two is the concept of ‘dynamic materiality’, meaning that more light can be shed on ESG issues – such as climate change – moving forwards.
The ideal outcome is that ISSB becomes a global standard which integrates the work of all previous standards and frameworks focused on investor needs. Ideally, the SEC and EU can use its standards. The EU can then top these standards up with those covering double materiality. As dynamic materiality makes these relevant to investors, the ISSB can then take over responsibility for the standard setting process.
How can ISSB success be achieved?
The corporate community has a key role to play in ensuring the success of the ISSB. Investors are increasingly demanding information on a company of interest’s sustainability performance. At the same time, companies are increasingly being accused of greenwashing their sustainability reporting by making it appear more environmentally sound than it is.
Having standards, with proper audits, addresses both issues. That said, it’s important to note that standards aren’t targets for issues like carbon emissions or diversity and inclusion. Rather, they provide credible information on the reporting done by a company on its progress in achieving whatever targets it decides to set, if any.
While ensuring that ISSB is a success, companies can also take steps to secure their own long-term viability. The first way is to participate in the standard setting process. As with financial standard setting, exposure drafts for proposed standards will be published in the public domain. Companies need to join investors in providing their input, including constructive critiques. If a company has an opportunity to participate in any advisory councils and working groups or share its views in comment letters, it should make the effort to do so.
The second approach is to proactively adopt these standards. There will be an inevitable lag between when the standards are published and the country in which the company is headquartered making them mandatory. However, those who wait will likely lose out.
As some companies quickly adopt ISSB’s standards, investor pressure will mount for others to follow suit so they can compare companies’ performance and do their own analysis. Failure to report won’t give a company the benefit of the doubt. Rather, investors will likely assume the worst, all to the possible detriment of the company’s stock price.
Ultimately, the ISSB will make life better for any company which cares about having a sustainable, long-term corporate strategy. Therefore, companies should give their full support to make these standards the best and most accurate they can be.
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