The Lowdown on Sustainability Reporting

Downtown Toronto

The Toronto Sustainability Reporting Symposium

Last week I attended a conference on sustainability reporting. It was held in Toronto’s swanky financial district (this is where the TV show Suits is filmed btw – yours truly got to witness some of the action while there). Present at the event were leaders in sustainability reporting, subject matter experts, corporate sustainability chiefs, and academics. The symposium’s objective was to bring all these people together in order for them to share their knowledge and insights, as well as offer descriptions of current developments in the field of sustainability metrics. It was simultaneously an enlightening and disconcerting experience, but I certainly left the event with a greater awareness of the gains and challenges in sustainability reporting.

The talks did begin upbeat and hopeful, as those in attendance shared their experiences as well as discoveries. Yours truly thought this was pretty cool! Where it took a turn, was as I heard from those who held sustainability titled roles in their companies explain that they reached the limits of what they were able to achieve. As they communicated their challenges and revelations, the consensus grew that the companies that were already thinking about sustainability had attempted what they could, and gained what they could, and were now waiting for potential regulation to determine the next course of action. One speaker put it bluntly in terms of the carrot and stick analogy, whereby the current carrots were already handed out, so it was now time for the stick to fall.


The Carrot and Stick Approach

While this was certainly logical, and well stated, it also came across as a passing of responsibility, a.k.a. the blame game. Corporations may well be waiting for further environmental regulation before altering processes, yet by the same mindset the current Canadian government has also adopted a similar strategy. From my discussion with those in government, our state’s resources and expertise are limited and it is therefore preferable to defer to industry, allowing them to self-regulate and determine the next course of action. As I heard one parliamentary member explain, the government is not meant to be proactive, but rather play “the caboose” and pull up the rear in order to ensure the minimum.


Government as the Caboose

Although that is not my own personal view as to the role of government, I could see how some may subscribe to the idea. The unfortunate repercussion however is the continued sufferance of our planet and the chronic exploitation of society. Too often we hear of wretched stories after the fact, how governments around the world eventually do step in, but only after the damage has been done. Once water sources have already been polluted and children poisoned, or citizens are killed by incompetent or greedy manufacturers who had managed to hide their malfeasance for awhile (to but scratch the surface, but there are countless examples). Such considerations need to be taken from the outset.


Hope on the Horizon

There is hope however! To be sure, listening to industry representatives speak of their need for our government to act, and simultaneously hearing our government talk of allowing industry to set the course for the good of the economy (and thereby permit the government to wash its hands of governing), can undoubtedly leave you feeling dejected and dismayed. Where I stand encouraged and optimistic is through the examples set by companies that do not wait for our government to set down the laws. The business case for sustainability is a great one, and there are indeed companies that have discovered this and are already reaping the benefits.

Better Together

Too often those in the environmental movements see industry as the enemy, while certain industry members see the environment as an inescapable nuisance, yet the reality does remain that life cannot survive without care for the environment, and that business and industry do control a tremendous amount of wealth (influence, capacity, and scale) as well as expertise. As a result, business can (and should) make for a fundamental partner in our journey towards a better future.

As I see it, sustainable progression is taking place, and businesses are discovering the need for such long term, inclusive strategies. The needs of the planet, its inhabitants, and its industry need not be at odds. There are natural alignments, but it certain does help to attempt to speak the language and advocate for what is naturally best for all at stake.


Looking to Trade

Finally, the other impetus towards the greater use and standardization of sustainability metrics is the financial sector! While this might come as a surprise to many, representatives from investments firms and funds, as well as those that provide the research to such institutions, are constantly on the lookout, and indeed demanding, better and clearer sustainability reporting.

It was refreshing to see and hear that right there in Toronto, Canada’s financial hub, there are advancements being made for improving current sustainability reporting. With active investors probing for how firms are incorporating sustainability, what their strategies are, and what their operations look like, it’s perhaps less astonishing to learn that the markets are responding.

Making it Happen

Capitalizing on such demand some organizations are establishing their own (although this becomes an obstacle for standardizing), while others are looking to adapt existing frameworks to suit their need. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is certainly a big and important one, but so too is one I recently discovered, the Future-Fit Business Benchmark (link) that uses scientific analysis to determine the benchmark necessary for businesses to “break-even” in terms of their social and environmental goals.

It was wonderful to see so many actively working towards the pursuit of greater sustainability reporting. While by no means an established feat, the very nature of its progress gives me confidence in our future and serves as a reminder that the path to excellence is a journey rather than a destination.



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