Academic journal article International Journal of Management

The Quality of the Sustainability Reports of Large International Companies: An Analysis

Academic journal article International Journal of Management

The Quality of the Sustainability Reports of Large International Companies: An Analysis

Article excerpt

As most large companies in the world are now issuing sustainability reports, this paper assesses the current quality of the reporting by analyzing the reports of 30 of the world's largest companies from different countries in 3 very different industries. Using a strategy-based conceptual framework, the reports were analysed in terms of their disclosure of their strategies and performance in the areas of governance, economics, environment, employees, customers, suppliers and community. The analysis finds very large gaps in the disclosures in all industries in most areas, in terms of lack of clear policies, lack of targets for performance and lack of performance discussion. The analysis also found that the information reported was often not related to material issues and was not assured, as well as many examples of 'greenwash'. Based on this sample, we conclude that sustainability reporting as it currently exists is unsustainable in quality and must be improved if it is to provide useful information to users.

Introduction

Sustainability reporting - reporting which covers the environmental and social as well as economic aspects of an organisation's performance - has been emerging globally over the last 15 years. Most large organisations in developed countries are now issuing these voluntary reports. KPMG (2008) reported that 79% of the global top 250 companies (up from 52% in 2005) now produce sustainability reports, along with 41% of the top 100 companies in 22 different countries. CorporateRegister.com, the largest global repository of sustainability reports, has over 21,000 reports on file, with numbers expected to grow by over 3,000 in 2009.

Clearly many organisations think sustainability reporting, although voluntary, is an important part of their performance assessment. Yet, unlike financial reporting, there are no agreed standard reporting frameworks, there are no agreed measures for what is reported and each industry faces quite different external issues which might be significant to its operations.

Despite this rapid expansion of sustainability reporting and their potential importance in changing the nature of measuring organizational performance, there is relatively little analysis of these reports. Previous analysis has been quite critical of earlier reporting, in particular arguing that reporting is not linked to strategy, is not material, not reliable and often represents an overly positive view of organization operations and performance. Now that most major organisations are producing these reports, how are organisations with different strategies in different industries reporting on these new elements of measurement? Is the information useful, reliable, relevant and comparable (Kamp-Roelands 2008) in helping stakeholders and analysts to measure organizational performance more holistically?

We begin by outlining the conceptual approaches to reporting, the practical frameworks which have developed and the critical analysis of reporting to date. Based on taking a strategic approach to reporting, a generic strategic reporting framework which should be applicable to all types of organisations is developed. We then report on the analysis of sustainability reports by 30 large global corporations in 3 very different industries against this framework to provide some insight into the current state of sustainability reporting. Large organisations have been at the forefront of reporting developments and they have large impacts on society. As the paper title suggests, based on this sample, we conclude that the current quality of reporting is unsustainable. We then suggest how sustainability reporting needs to be improved so that it contributes usefully to stakeholders and analysts being better able to measure strategic organizational performance.

Literature review

Conceptually, it is increasingly accepted that a stakeholder perspective is the appropriate way to consider organizational performance, rather than a shareholder perspective (see Hubbard 2009 and Vormedal and Ruud 2009 for contemporary summaries of the arguments). …

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