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The State of Sustainability Reporting in Australia 2004

Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004

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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 sustainability report or are planning to launch their first sustainability report in 2004. A broad range of corporate non-financial reports was considered under the heading of 'sustainability reports', including triple bottom line reports, environment reports and community reports. The project also identified the extent of external verification of sustainability reports and the benefits and impediments associated with producing a sustainability report. In addition to the analysis of current Australian performance on sustainability reporting, the project looked at sustainability report-related activity occurring overseas.

The Centre for Australian Ethical Research (CAER), in collaboration with KPMG and Deni Greene Consulting Services, has conducted this project for the Commonwealth Department of the Environment and Heritage.

This project involved gathering information on sustainability reporting activities from:

Issues addressed included:

Sustainability reporting in Australia and overseas

A great deal of attention worldwide is being directed toward the reporting activities of companies. Current initiatives on sustainability reporting involve governments, industry bodies, non-government organisations (NGOs) such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), and, increasingly, companies taking individual action.

The Australian Government has taken a number of important steps to encourage the production of sustainability reports, including publications, an extension program with industry organisations, and roundtable discussions.

Overseas, several countries are mandating sustainability reporting for a wide range of companies and industries. Some financial organisations are setting criteria for investment that includes production of a sustainability report. Guidance on producing sustainability reports is coming from a range of different types of organisations, including Government bodies, industry associations and NGOs. Good sustainability reporting is now recognised by awards in Australia and overseas.

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 509 companies researched for the project, 98 agreed to provide information about their sustainability reporting activities and 28 companies declined to participate. The remaining companies did not respond. The response rate (including both those providing information and those declining to do so) was 25%.

To supplement the responses received and to verify information in the responses, CAER visited websites of all companies surveyed, looking at stand-alone reports and sections within Annual Reports, as well as any sustainability sections on company web sites. A total of 116 companies among the 509 covered by this project are producing sustainability reports (or sections of Annual Reports or websites). It is reasonable to assume that the remaining companies are not producing a sustainability report, because none appears on their websites. (Some private companies failing to respond to the request for information do not have websites, but it is not likely that such companies have produced a sustainability report.)

Production of a sustainability report

The project identified 116 companies producing a sustainability report (or sections of an Annual Report or website), of which 53% are in the mining or manufacturing sector. Foreign-owned companies were considerably more likely to produce a sustainability report than companies that are Australian owned. Overall, the rate of production among the 509 companies covered by the project is 23%. These companies have produced 465 sustainability reports since 1993.

There appears to be a worldwide trend toward greater use of sustainability reports instead of environment-only reports, and this is evident in the Australian results.

The number of sustainability reports identified this year is substantially greater than in 2003 (116 reports this year, compared to 57 in the previous year). This reflects both the growth in reporting and the widening of the scope of the project to include sustainability sections in Annual Reports and websites. The 116 reports include 84 stand-alone reports, 21 sections of Annual Reports, and 11 website sections. In Australia, although the number of sustainability reports produced is increasing, the proportion of large companies with sustainability reports is still very low.

Verification

Of the 116 companies producing a sustainability report, 32 have had or will have their report independently verified. Stand-alone reports are far more likely to be verified than sections of Annual Reports or websites.

Benefits of producing sustainability reports

Companies in all industry sectors most often cited 'reputation enhancement' as the key benefit of producing a sustainability report. The next most frequently cited benefits are:

'gain confidence of investors, insurers and financial institutions', 'operational and management improvements' and 'improved management of risks'.

Impediments to producing a sustainability report

Cost and resource constraints were the most frequently identified impediments to producing a sustainability report and to verification. A range of other impediments was also identified.

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 509 companies researched for this project, 40 are making use of the GRI guidelines.

Conclusions

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

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

Most companies surveyed recognise that there are benefits from producing a sustainability report. In many cases, though, where companies do not prepare sustainability reports, the benefits are apparently not considered significant enough to justify the allocation of financial and human resources required.

There appears to be a worldwide trend toward greater inclusion of social data within reports, and towards use of sustainability reports instead of environment-only reports.

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

The use of GRI guidelines is becoming more widespread, particularly among international companies.