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The State of Public Environmental Reporting in Corporate Australia

Prepared by the Centre for Australian Ethical Research in collaboration with Deni Greene Consulting Services
Environment Australia
March 2003


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Executive Summary

This report presents the results of a project to identify the number of Australia's largest companies that have undertaken a Public Environmental Report (PER) or are planning to launch their first PER in 2003. Triple bottom line reports and sustainability reports were considered along with PERs, as many companies are now moving from environmental reporting to broader coverage of environmental, social and economic issues. The project also identified the extent of external verification of PERs and the benefits and impediments associated with producing a PER report. In addition to the analysis of current Australian performance on PER, the project looked at PER-related activity occurring overseas.

The Centre for Australian Ethical Research (CAER), in collaboration with Deni Greene Consulting Services, has conducted this project for Environment Australia (EA)

This project involved gathering information on PER activities from:

Issues addressed included:

PER in Australia and overseas

A great deal of attention worldwide is being directed toward the reporting activities of companies. Business interest in sustainability is also continuing to grow. The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 attracted almost as many corporate leaders as Heads of State and Government. Current initiatives on public environmental reporting involve Governments, industry bodies, non-government organisations (NGOs) such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), and, increasingly, companies taking individual action.

In Australia, although the number of PERs produced is increasing, the proportion of large companies with PERs is not. The issue of environmental and social reporting is not a significant part of the widespread public debate here on corporate transparency and accountability. The Australian Government has taken a number of important steps to encourage the production of PERs, including publications, an extension program with industry organisations, and roundtable discussions.

Overseas, several countries have appointed Ministers for Sustainable Development, and a number are mandating public environmental reporting for a wide range of companies and industries. Some financial organisations are setting criteria for investment that includes production of a PER. Guidance on producing PERs (or sustainability reports) is coming from a range of different types of organisations, including Government bodies, industry associations and NGOs.

Environmental and sustainability reporting is becoming increasingly common among very large companies; 45% of the Global Fortune Top 250 companies now publish such reports. Verification and external assurance of reports is a growing area of interest overseas, no doubt because of the close links to the extensive discussion on transparency and accountability.

Outcomes of this project


Participation in the project

Of the 500 companies contacted for the project, 195 agreed to provide information about their PER activities, 90 companies declined to participate, and the remaining companies did not respond. The response rate (including both those providing information and those declining to do so) was 57%.

Production of a PER

The project identified 57 companies producing a PER, of which 70% are in the mining or manufacturing sector. Foreign owned companies were considerably more likely to be producing a PER than companies that are Australian owned. Overall, the rate of production among the 500 companies covered by the project is 11%. The number of PERs that has been produced by these companies since 1993 is 214; as five of these are bi-annual reports, the total number of years covered is 219.

Verification

Of the 57 companies producing a PER, 28 have had or will have their report independently verified. Independent verification is much more prevalent for the more recent reports than it was for earlier reports.

Benefits of producing PERs

Companies in all industry sectors most often cited reputation enhancement as the key benefit of producing a PER. The next most frequently cited benefits are: gaining the confidence of investors, insurers and financial institutions, and improved management of risks. There was considerable variation among industry sectors in the benefits they perceived from production of a PER.

Impediments to producing a PER

Cost and resource constraints were the most frequently identified impediments to producing a PER and to verification. A range of other impediments was also identified, and the impediments cited varied considerably among industry sectors.

Use of Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Guidelines

The Global Reporting Initiative is an attempt to promote harmonisation in reporting relevant and credible corporate economic, environmental, and social performance information. Within the 195 companies providing information about their activities for this project, 14 are making some use of the GRI guidelines.

Conclusions

The conduct and outcome of this study provided a number of valuable insights into the current status of public environmental reporting in Australia and into industry attitudes and perceptions.

From the results obtained, it is evident that the number of PERs and the extent of verification of PERs are increasing in Australia. Nevertheless the proportion of companies producing PERs is still very low, and is considerably lower than among large companies overseas.

Most companies recognise that there are benefits from producing a PER, but in many cases, the benefits are apparently not considered significant enough to justify the allocation of financial and human resources required to produce a PER.

There appears to be a worldwide trend toward greater inclusion of social data within reports, and towards use of sustainability reports. Use of triple bottom line reports is growing, but more slowly.

The value of verification has not been recognised in most industry sectors in Australia.

The use of GRI guidelines is another issue that will be of increasing importance, and greater discussion and debate in Australia would be valuable.

Background

The Centre for Australian Ethical Research (CAER), in collaboration with Deni Greene Consulting Services, has conducted a study for Environment Australia (EA) on the state of Public Environmental Reporting (PER) in Australia. The primary purpose specified for this study was to identify the number of Australia's largest companies that have produced a Public Environmental Report or are planning to launch their first PER in 2003. The secondary purpose specified was to identify benefits and impediments associated with producing a PER report.

The primary audience for the study is Australian companies, with the secondary audience being the finance sector and government. The study will be used to assist the promotion of initiatives targeted at increasing the uptake of PER in Australia. The Final Report on the study will be made available through Environment Australia's Finance, Accounting and Reporting website. Links to company PER reports will be added to Environment Australia's on-line PER library where companies have given approval for such links.