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Sustainability through transparency

By Professor Carol Adams, April 2021

The Sustainable Development Goal Disclosure (SDGD) Recommendations draw on the three frameworks/ standards most used by reporters and/ or that are most influential with respect to regulatory and non-regulatory policy initiatives. The International Framework, the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures recommendations and the Global Reporting Initiative Standards are all critical to the shift to sustainable development. Extracts of responses to the public consultation have been published in Sustainable Development Goals Disclosure (SDGD) Recommendations: Feedback on the consultation. They make a strong case that:

  • the level of disclosure by organisations on sustainable development is insufficient to support achievement of the SDGs and value creation for organisations and society.
  • addressing this requires a concerted effort by all sectors of society and collaboration between organisations and authorities responsible for developing guidelines, regulations and ‘tools’.

The Deloitte response to the consultation observed that it added to “the case… for a formal, global and connected approach to standard setting, to include non-financial information” and EY noted that the consultation paper “brings into focus” the need to enhance current reporting practices.

"We view the SDGs as a ‘universal lens’ which investors, companies and stakeholders across society and including the global environment can share in finding solutions which lead to meaningful and measurable outcomes for the world’s biggest challenges. They also provide a clear timeframe in which change needs to take place, helping to set targets and create a greater sense of urgency".

- Hermes

The Sustainable Development Goals Disclosure Recommendations, published by global professional accounting bodies and other key organisations, support:

  • identification of material sustainable development risks and opportunities relevant to long-term value creation for organisations and society.
  • changing what an organisation does and how it does it in order to contribute to the SDGs
  • communication of impact on achievement of the SDGs.

"The SDGs are a unique common language that is increasingly understood and used by business, finance and civil society to engage with issues that typically have been considered outside of their traditional boundaries".

- ACCA

The SDGD Recommendations encourage organisations to think about sustainable development risks and opportunities when developing their strategies. The professional accounting body ACCA noted: “To be effective, SDG disclosures must provide organisations with the ability to think about the SDG-related risks and opportunities of the external environment in a meaningful, and context-based way, and then apply suitable approaches to addressing those risks and opportunities.”

In its response to the consultation, the United Nations Development Programme noted: “We propose that… we align our Enterprise Standards under development with the [SDGD Recommendations], such that certification against the Enterprise Standards would be sufficient to also ensure adherence with the SDGD Recommendations.”

Reporting often focuses more on value creation and positive impacts than value destruction and negative impacts. The information disclosed is consequently of limited use to the organisation, its providers of finance and other key stakeholders. Lack of assurance and the limited scope (often limited to quantitative indicators) of many current assurance engagements is a further barrier to the information being used by investors in their capital allocation decisions.

The SDGD Recommendations provide examples of documentary evidence that should be maintained to add robustness to the organisation’s approach to SDG Disclosures in order to give the Board confidence that the organisation’s:

  • approach to the SDGs is fully integrated into processes, policies and practices.
  • SDG Disclosures follow the Fundamental Concepts and Principles set out in the document.

Compulsory study

Consultancy firm Arup noted in its response to the consultation that: “…a complement to assurance is to make accounting for sustainability a compulsory subject at university for those studying accounting. It could also be incorporated into the professional accounting qualifications.” At Durham University Business School, sustainability accounting and reporting are covered in both undergraduate and postgraduate accounting degrees.

"We commend the recommendation to embed SDG considerations... to transform business models and strategy… to both align with and promote achievement of the SDGs. (including reducing harmful activities) by 2030".

- UNDP

  • Adams, C A, with Druckman, P B, Picot, R C, (2020) Sustainable Development Goal Disclosure (SDGD) Recommendations, published by ACCA, Chartered Accountants ANZ, ICAS, IFAC, IIRC and WBA. ISBN: 978-1-909883-62-8
  • Adams, CA (2020) Sustainable Development Goal Disclosure (SDGD) Recommendations: Feedback on the consultation responses, published by ACCA, IIRC and WBA. ISBN-978-1-898291-33-6

More information on Professor Adams' research interests.