Will Integrated Reporting improve sustainability? Part II – Communicating Value

dreamstime_s_42615032Dr Dale Tweedie and Prof. Nonna Martinov-Bennie.

This is the second in a series of blogs that asks whether Integrated Reporting can contribute to sustainability, where sustainability means a replicable and just use of natural and social resources.

Our last blog highlighted one key difference between an Integrated Report and a sustainability report: That an Integrated Report describes natural and social resources from the company’s point of view.

This blog explores a second difference, which is that an Integrated Report is more about helping companies communicate than holding companies accountable. As a result, whether Integrated Reporting makes companies more sustainable depends on what and to whom companies choose to communicate.

Reporting and corporate change.

There are at least two ways that any report might change a company’s behaviour:

  1. A report may enable someone – a shareholder, an employee or a regulator – to hold a company accountable for its actions. Sustainability reporting is often viewed this way. For instance, having multi-national companies report against global labour rights may enable civil society to better enforce these standards.
  2. A report may change behaviour by changing relationships, or by starting new conversations. For example, GRI 4 requires companies to engage with stakeholders to determine their concerns. If this discussion changes how companies act, then the process of GRI reporting could change companies’ behaviour by initiating structured conversations between the company and the people it affects.

In our view, the potential of Integrated Reporting to change behaviour is more through the second mechanism than the first. That is, the potential for Integrated Reports to improve sustainability is less about making organisations more accountable, and more about creating different discussions between organisations and their stakeholders.

Communication into action

Viewed in this light, whether Integrated Reporting improves sustainability depends on what kinds of conversations an Integrated Report enables, and whether companies choose to use Integrated Reporting to initiate these conversations.

Internal conversations

Integrated Reporting might provide space and vocabulary within firms to have conversations that might not otherwise occur, especially at board and management level.

There are many people within most companies who are genuinely committed to sustainability, but whose companies may not have a culture of discussing sustainability issues. The language of six capitals might enable more serious discussions about long-term connections between companies and social and environmental issues, especially at senior levels.

External conversations

Although targeted at investors, the six capitals framework might allow organisations to more rigorously engage with stakeholders’ concerns.

For example, a common view amongst academics is that companies need social legitimacy to operate over the long term, sometimes called a social licence to operate. Integrated Reporting might allow organisations to have better conversations about preserving their social licence to operate by creating a common vocabulary in which these conversations can occur.

Implications for Integrated Reporting

Thinking about Integrated Reporting as more a vocabulary than an accountability mechanism has three implications for how companies should use an Integrated Report.

  1. There is no value in simply delegating an Integrated Report to the sustainability reporting team. Since the potential value of an Integrated Report is the conversations it could enable, the only substantive reason to produce an Integrated report is to start discussions between the sustainability team and finance, marketing, management and the board, especially about where the company, environment and society will be in five, ten or twenty years’ time.
  2. Issuing an Integrated Report is unlikely to satisfy public critics of a company’s sustainability record. On present evidence, Integrated Reports are not comparable enough to hold companies accountable on their social and environmental performance. Instead, the value of an Integrated Report is if companies are able to use the reporting framework – and the idea of six capitals it contains – to engage rather than placate concerned stakeholders.
  3. Stakeholder engagement is a key area for future development of the Integrated Reporting Framework. The current Framework requires companies to consider the ‘legitimate interests’ of stakeholders, and provides a language and format for this consideration. But – unlike GRI 4 for instance – there is little guidance on how this engagement should occur in practice.

Next time…

Based on our recent article, our next blog will consider the claim that Integrated Reporting encourages ‘integrated thinking’. What does this mean, and how – if at all – is it relevant to sustainability?

In the meantime, any thoughts or questions most welcome.

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