August 27, 2014

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Can Corporate Sustainability & Economic Growth Coexist?


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What Does it Mean
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Aiming for Full Disclosure: Is the Game Over?

Superstars Bloomberg LP founder and Mayor and SEC Chair Shapiro leap on Team SASB.

Joe_sibilia_headshot

By Joe Sibilia

If you’re thinking about or developing a set of standards for sustainability reporting in any incarnation, think again.

If you think that integrated reporting might be a fad, think again.

And if you still think that markets won’t work better and that environmental and social issues are not material to a corporation’s activities, think again.

Because the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board™ (SASB)™, a 501c3 non-profit organization that develops sustainability accounting standards for publicly-listed U.S. corporations, is set to shift all that thinking. With the recent additions of two superstars, the organization, which was started with the not-so-humble aim of embedding sustainability metrics into accounting standards and a power point presentation, has finally arrived.

The superstars: Bloomberg LP founder and Mayor Michael Bloomberg along with SEC Chairwoman Mary Shapiro recently joined SASB as Chairman and Co-Chairwoman respectively.

Before the turn of the century, our family contributed financial support for the development of the Social Venture Network's Standards for Corporate Social Responsibility. I contributed content for its development. Then, reporting platforms for social and environmental metrics were nonexistent. So we decided to create our own. Bloomberg and ShapiroThe Principles, Standards and Measures book sits proudly in our office library.

But we were the Junior Varsity attempting to play professional. It has taken years of upheaval, ridicule and disdain for the pioneers of innovative integrated reporting to attract interest from the likes of Bloomberg and Shapiro.

According to SASB Board member and Harvard Business School Professor Robert Eccles it wasn’t a stretch for Bloomberg to join the team. “It’s not as dramatic as you think, not out of the blue. We’ve been dealing with Bloomberg from early on. They provided us with our first major gift and have been very generous ever since,” he said.

I’m sure from inside the beltway it seems that way; however, the wider financial community hasn’t heard of SASB—and that has changed with this announcement.

As for Shapiro's addition, SASB CEO Jean Rogers said: “As SEC chair, Mary Schapiro oversaw Dodd-Frank implementation – including say on pay, conflict minerals, mine safety and payments to governments rules – as well as board diversity disclosure rules and climate change disclosure guidance. Her accomplishments speak to her dedication to transparent and quality disclosure, which explains her interest in SASB." The critics of Dodd-Frank and additional regulation and compliance detractors will be vocal and challenged by this announcement.

The business opportunities presented by this shift to transparent and quality disclosure is now beginning to become clearer to several groups. In fact, an acquaintance recently purchased ESG10k.com in anticipation of mainstreaming integrated reporting. According to Prof. Eccles, “Once they put (SASB reporting) in the 10-K’s, they really can’t stop. You get the feeling that it’s mainstream. This is real business."

Obviously, the key mission is to finish the standards and achieve adoption.

“SASB has issued standards for 19 industries and is moving closer to our target of issuing 80+ industry standards by 2016,” says Dr. Rogers. With Bloomberg and Shapiro's commitment, SASB plans to not only influence the investment communities to adopt the standards but also leverage their influence to gain social legitimacy and fund raising support.

Of course, Bloomberg will benefit as adoption scales and the terminal—core to the company's business model—offers even more comprehensive data for investors.

“One way we’re working with Bloomberg LP on adoption is through the incorporation of SASB standards—as well as research briefs—in the Bloomberg terminal. This will facilitate investor access to SASB research and information,” SASBsays Dr. Rogers.

When asked about the SASB brand, Prof. Eccles offered that not a lot of attention has been paid to the brand. “You’ve got to have a product before you have a brand.” He readily admitted that the subject matter is rather arcane and he and Dr. Rogers do not have the branding experience necessary. But, you can bet branding experts are knocking at their door.

Although the focus of attention is on the United States capital markets, Prof. Eccles and team have “put forth a proposal to the World Federation of Exchanges (WFE) that would require nonfinancial ESG disclosure among companies listed on member exchanges.”

SASB is aiming for world domination by attracting the best minds and reputations to fulfill the dream of complete transparency. They're a championship team willing to change the game and we are no longer spectators.

As for the organization's immediate plans, Dr. Rogers offered, "For SASB to achieve broad-based use of the standards, we must focus on initiatives and products that will drive adoption of the standards. To do this, SASB is planning an adoption campaign that focuses on moving key stakeholders through the stages of awareness of SASB, understanding of the standards, and commitment to use."

Much more to come. Stay tuned.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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