More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want

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More than values:
The value-based
sustainability reporting
that investors want
Nonfinancial reports helped stimulate the growth of sustainable
investing. Now investors are questioning current reporting
practices—and calling for changes that executives and board
members must understand.
July 2019
As evidence mounts that the financial performance
of companies corresponds to how well they contend
with environmental, social, governance (ESG),
and other nonfinancial matters, more investors
are seeking to determine whether executives
are running their businesses with such issues in
mind. When companies report on ESG-related
activities, they have largely continued to address
the diverse interests of their many stakeholders—a
long-standing practice that involves compiling
extensive sustainability reports and filling out stacks
of questionnaires. Despite all that effort, a recent
McKinsey survey uncovered something that should
concern corporate executives and board members:
investors say they cannot readily use companies’
sustainability disclosures to inform investment
decisions and advice accurately.1
What’s unusual and challenging about
sustainability-focused investment analysis
is that companies’ sustainability disclosures
needn’t conform to shared standards in the way
their financial disclosures must. Years of effort
by standard-setting groups have produced
nearly a dozen major reporting frameworks and
standards, which businesses have discretion to
apply as they see fit (see sidebar “A short glossary
of sustainability-reporting terms”). Investors
must therefore reconcile corporate sustainability
disclosures as best they can before trying to draw
comparisons among companies.
Corporate executives and investors alike recognize
that sustainability reporting could improve in
some respects. One advance that executives
and investors strongly support, according to
our survey, is reducing the number of standards
for sustainability reporting. Many executive
respondents said they believe this would aid their
efforts to manage sustainability impacts and
respond to sustainability-related trends, such
as climate change and water scarcity. And many
investors said they expect greater standardization
of sustainability reports to help them allocate
capital and engage companies more effectively.
While these findings might not surprise readers
involved with sustainable investing or sustainability
reporting, it was striking to learn that investors also
support legal mandates requiring companies to
issue sustainability reports (Exhibit 1). In this article,
we offer executives, directors, and investors a look
at how sustainability reporting has evolved, what
further changes investors say they want, and how
investors can bring about those changes.
Reporting today: Externality focused
and inconsistent, yet informative
The current practice of sustainability reporting
developed in the 1990s as civil-society groups,
governments, and other constituencies called on
companies to account for their impact on nature and
on the communities where they operate. A milestone
was passed in 2000, when the Global Reporting
Initiative (GRI) published its first sustainabilityreporting guidelines. The following year, the World
Business Council for Sustainable Development
and the World Resources Institute released the
Greenhouse Gas Protocol. The same period also
saw the creation of voluntary initiatives, such as
the UN Global Compact and the Carbon Disclosure
Project (now CDP), encouraging corporations
to disclose information on sustainability. Since
the financial crisis, additional frameworks and
standards have emerged to help companies and
their investors develop a greater understanding
of the risks and benefits of ESG and nonfinancial
factors. For example, the International Integrated
Reporting Council (IIRC) advocates integration of
financial and nonfinancial reports, the Sustainability
Accounting Standards Board (SASB) identifies
material sustainability factors across industries,
and the Embankment Project for Inclusive
Capitalism assembles investors and companies to
define a pragmatic set of metrics to measure and
demonstrate long-term value to financial markets.
1 For this research, we conducted a survey of 107 executives and investors, representing 50 companies, 27 asset managers, and 30 asset
owners. The survey, carried out in January and February of 2019, covered Asia, Europe, and the United States. We also conducted interviews
with 26 representatives of asset managers, asset owners, corporations, standard-setting organizations, nonprofit organizations, and
academic institutions.
2 More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want
Given the proliferation of reporting frameworks
and standards, companies have had to decide for
themselves which ones to apply. These frameworks
and standards allow businesses considerable
freedom to choose their sustainability disclosures.
Many companies select their disclosures by
consulting members of stakeholder groups—
consumers, local communities, employees, governments, and investors, among others—about which
externalities, or impacts, matter most to them and
then tallying the stakeholders’ interests in some
way. More recently, stakeholders have asked for
increased disclosure about how companies address
opportunities and risks related to sustainability
trends, such as climate change and water scarcity,
which can meaningfully affect a company’s assets,
operations, and reputation.
The scope and depth of these disclosures differ
considerably as a result of the subjective choices
companies make about their approaches to
sustainability reporting: which frameworks and
standards to follow, which stakeholders to address,
and which information to make public. According
Exhibit 1
GES 2019
More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want
Exhibit 1 of 4
Investors and executives say that reducing the number of sustainability-reporting standards
would be benecial—and even that there should be legal mandates for reporting.
Respondents who agree with statement, %1
1 Respondents who answered “agree” or “strongly agree.” For investors, n = 57; for executives, n = 50.
Source: McKinsey Sustainability Reporting Survey
% of investors who agree or strongly agree that more standardization of sustainability reporting would do the following1
:
% of executives who agree or strongly agree that more standardization of sustainability reporting would do the following1
:
Investors Executives Investors Executives
14
28
75
58
82
66
help my „rm
allocate capital
more e…ectively
85
help my „rm
manage risk
more e…ectively
83
help my company
benchmark itself
against its peers
80
enhance my
company’s ability
to create value
or mitigate risk
68
There should be fewer sustainabilityreporting standards than there are today
Companies should be required by
law to issue sustainability reports
There should be 1 sustainabilityreporting standard
More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want 3
to the executives and investors we surveyed, the
diversity of these disclosures is a defining feature of
sustainability reporting as we know it—and a source
of difficulty, as we explain in the following section of
this article.
Nevertheless, 30-odd years of sustainability
reporting have produced a trove of useful data.
Stakeholders can use this information to track the
relative sustainability performance of companies
from year to year. By aggregating data from many
companies, stakeholders can not only discern
patterns and trends in companies’ responses
to sustainability issues but compare and rank
businesses as well.
Analysts in academia, government, and the
private sector have also used these sustainability
disclosures to examine the link between sustainability performance and financial performance. A
substantial body of research shows that companies
that manage sustainability issues well achieve
superior financial results.2
(Researchers have shown
only that these two phenomena are correlated, not
that effective sustainability management leads to
better financial outcomes.)
2 Alexander Bassen, Timo Busch, and Gunnar Friede, “ESG and financial performance: Aggregated evidence from more than 2000 empirical
studies,” Journal of Sustainable Finance & Investment, 2015, Volume 5, Issue 4, p. 210–33; Robert G. Eccles, Ioannis Ioannou, and George
Serafeim, “The impact of corporate sustainability on organizational processes and performance,” Management Science, 2014, Volume 60,
Issue 11, pp. 2835–57; Gordon L. Clark, Andreas Feiner, and Michael Viehs, From the stockholder to the stakeholder: How sustainability can
drive financial outperformance, a joint report from Arabesque and University of Oxford, March 2015, insights.arabesque.com; “Sustainability:
The future of investing,” BlackRock, February 1, 2019, blackrock.com.
A short glossary of sustainability-reporting terms
In this article, we use the following
terms for certain elements of sustainability reporting:
— Sustainability disclosure. This
disclosure is an item of qualitative
or quantitative information about
a company’s performance on a
topic not addressed by standard
financial and operational disclosures.
Sustainability disclosures ordinarily
relate to environmental, social, and
governance matters, including
companies’ sustainability impacts and
responses to external sustainability
trends. These disclosures sometimes
encompass other topics, too, such as
HR and intellectual property.
— Sustainability report. This report
is a document containing a set of
sustainability disclosures from an
organization for a period of time. It
can be a stand-alone document or a
component of the annual report.
— Sustainability-reporting
requirement. This requirement is
a mandate from an authority (such
as a regulator, a stock exchange,
or a civil-society group) about a
sustainability report’s content and
nature. Some requirements apply to
all companies in a given jurisdiction—
for example, Directive 2014/95/EU
of the European Parliament and the
European Council, requiring some
large companies to issue nonfinancial
disclosures. Others, such as the
UN Global Compact, apply only to
companies that have voluntarily
pledged to abide by them.
— Sustainability-reporting
framework. This framework is a set
of guidelines for determining what
topics and disclosures a sustainability
report should cover. The International
Integrated Reporting Framework,
published by the International
Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC),
is one example.
— Sustainability-reporting standard.
This standard is a set of specifications
for measuring and disseminating
sustainability disclosures. Examples
include the Global Reporting
Initiative’s GRI Standards and the
77 industry-specific standards
published by the Sustainability
Accounting Standards Board.
4 More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want
Investors want companies to provide
more sustainability disclosures that are
material to financial performance.
3 Global Sustainable Investment Review 2012 and Global Sustainable Investment Review 2018, Global Sustainable Investment Alliance,
gsi-alliance.org. 4 “Sustainability: The future of investing,” BlackRock, February 1, 2019, blackrock.com.
5 “Sustainable signals: Asset owners embrace sustainability,” Morgan Stanley, June 18, 2018, morganstanley.com.
Investors and asset owners appear to be taking note
of corporate sustainability disclosures and adapting
their investment strategies accordingly. The Global
Sustainable Investment Alliance has found that
the quantity of global assets managed according
to sustainable-investment strategies more than
doubled from 2012 to 2018, rising from $13.3 trillion
to $30.7 trillion.3
BlackRock reports that assets in
sustainable mutual funds and exchange-traded
funds in Europe and the United States increased by
more than 67 percent from 2013 to 2019 and now
amount to $760 billion.4
And research by Morgan
Stanley indicates that a majority of large asset
owners are integrating sustainability factors into
their investment processes. Many of those asset
owners started to do so only during the four years
before the survey.5

What investors want: Financial
materiality, consistency, and reliability
With so much capital at stake, investors have begun
to question prevailing sustainability-reporting
practices. The shortcomings investors now highlight
have existed for some time but were mostly
acceptable to early sustainable investors and the
diverse civil-society stakeholders that used to be
the primary readers of sustainability reports. But
now that more asset owners and asset managers
are making investment and engagement decisions
with sustainability in mind, a louder call has gone out
for sustainability disclosures that meet the following
three criteria.
Financial materiality
Investors acknowledge that their expectations for
sustainability disclosures have shifted. As the head
of responsible investing at a large global pension
fund remarked, “The early days of sustainable
investing were values based: How can our investing
live up to our values? Now, it is value-based: How
does sustainability add value to our investments?”
From our interviews and survey results, it is
apparent that investors want companies to provide
more sustainability disclosures that are material
to financial performance. According to a senior
sustainable-investing officer at one top 20 asset
manager, “Corporations do not provide systematic
data on one-third of the sustainability factors
[that we consider] material.” This could change
as more companies issue reports in line with the
sector-specific standards that SASB created in
consultation with industry experts and investors.
Government authorities and civil-society
organizations also appear to be coming around
to investors’ views about the material connection
between a company’s handling of sustainability
factors and its financial performance. The European
Union’s 2014 directive on nonfinancial reporting and
the Financial Stability Board’s creation of the Task
Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures in
2015 are two signals that financial regulators realize
sustainability-related activities can materially affect
the financial standing of companies and should be
reported accordingly.
More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want 5
Consistency
With so many reporting frameworks and guidelines
to choose from, and so many potential stakeholder
interests to address, companies rarely make
sustainability disclosures that can be compared
as neatly as their financial disclosures can. This
circumstance makes the job of investors more difficult,
as they indicated in response to our survey (Exhibit 2).
As the head of sustainable investing at a major asset
manager explained, “We have positions in over 4,500
companies. Unless [sustainability information] is
comparable, hard data, it is of little use to us.”
Inconsistencies among sustainability disclosures,
which arise through no fault of the companies
producing them, can also create problems for the
many investors that obtain sustainability data
from third-party services rather than individual
sustainability reports. These services use different
methods to estimate missing information, so there
are discrepancies among data sets. Some services
normalize sustainability information, replacing
actual performance data (such as measurements
of greenhouse-gas emissions) with performance
scores calculated by methods the services don’t
reveal. Research shows a low level of correlation
among the data providers’ ratings of performance
on the same sustainability factor.6
Similarly, proprietary indexes and rankings
of sustainable companies, which some asset
managers use to construct index-fund portfolios,
can also diverge greatly. It is not unusual for a
company to be rated a top sustainability performer
by one index and a poor performer by another.7
And
some data services fail to include sustainability data
companies have disclosed.8
Reliability
As the head of responsible investing for one of the
world’s five largest pension funds put it, “Many
companies do not have the systems in place to
collect quality data for [sustainability] reporting.”
For certain tangible sustainability factors, such
as greenhouse-gas emissions, performancemeasurement systems are generally well
Exhibit 2
GES 2019
More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want
Exhibit 2 of 4
Investors report that the main shortcomings of current sustainability-reporting practices are
inconsistency, incomparability, and lack of alignment in standards.
Top challenges associated with current sustainability-reporting practices,1
mean rating on 1–5 scale, where 5 is
most challenging
1 n = 57.
Source: McKinsey Sustainability Reporting Survey
Inconsistency, incomparability,
or lack of alignment in standards
Too costly or time intensive
Unclear bene­ts or value added
3.33
3.11
0 1 2 3 4 5
3.47
6 Gregor Dorfleitner, Gerhard Halbritter, and Mai Nguyen, “Measuring the level and risk of corporate responsibility—an empirical comparison of
different ESG rating approaches,” Journal of Asset Management, 2015, Volume 16, Issue 7, pp. 450–66. The correlation between ratings of the
same performance factor is typically less than 0.6 and can fall to as low as 0.05. By comparison, credit ratings are highly correlated (0.9). 7 James Mackintosh, “Is Tesla or Exxon more sustainable? It depends whom you ask,” Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2018, wsj.com. 8 “Sustainability: The future of investing,” BlackRock, February 1, 2019, blackrock.com.
6 More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want
Exhibit 3
GES 2019
More than values: The value-based
sustainability reporting that investors
want
Exhibit 3 of 4
More investors believe that sustainability reports should be audited and
that the audits should be full audits,
similar to nancial ones.
1 Respondents who answered “agree” or “strongly agree.” For
investors, n = 57; for executives, n = 50.
Source: McKinsey Sustainability Reporting Survey
Respondents who agree with statement, %1
Sustainability reports
should undergo some audit
Investors Executives Investors Executives
Sustainability reports
should undergo full audit,
similar to a „nancial audit
97
88
67
36
established. For other factors, such as corporate
culture, human capital, and diversity and inclusion,
clear ways to gauge performance are more elusive.
Investors also harbor doubts about corporate
sustainability disclosures because few of them
undergo third-party audits. Nearly all the investors
we surveyed—97 percent—said that sustainability
disclosures should be audited in some way, and
67 percent said that sustainability audits should be
as rigorous as financial audits (Exhibit 3).
Refining the practice of
sustainability reporting
In our survey and interviews, one priority for
improving sustainability reporting stood out: ironing
out the differences among reporting frameworks
and standards. When we asked survey respondents
to assess the challenges of sustainability reporting,
executives and investors both rated “inconsistency,
incomparability, or lack of alignment in standards”
as the most significant challenge. A majority of
respondents to our survey—67 percent—said
there should be only one standard, and an additional
21 percent said there should be fewer than exist now.
The investors and executives who participated in
our research also described several benefits of
making reporting frameworks and standards more
uniform. Investors expect greater uniformity to help
companies disclose more consistent, financially
material data, thereby enabling investors to save
time on research and analysis and to arrive at
better investment decisions. Some efficiency
gains would accrue as third-party data providers
begin aggregating sustainability information
as consistent as the information they get from
corporate financial statements.
Most of the investors we surveyed—63 percent—
also said they believe that greater standardization
will attract more capital to sustainable-investment
strategies. However, about one-fifth of the surveyed
investors said that uniform reporting standards
would level the playing field, diminishing their
opportunities to develop proprietary research
insights or investment products (Exhibit 4).
Executives made clear, in our conversations,
that they devote excessive effort and expense
to answering numerous specialized requests
for what is essentially the same information, such
as greenhouse-gas emissions data that must
be tabulated in different ways to conform to
different standards.
This kind of burden would be lessened if the providers
of reporting frameworks and standards combined
or rationalized their rules and thereby reduced the
number of major frameworks and standards to one or
two. Companies could then use the same disclosures
to fulfill the reporting demands of multiple authorities.
(They could still develop additional sustainability
disclosures if they chose to address stakeholder
More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want 7
queries or concerns that the main mechanism didn’t
cover.) Establishing one or two reporting standards
would also simplify the task of auditing sustainability
disclosures, making it more economical for companies
to have their reports independently verified.
How investors can help effect change
Reducing the number of reporting frameworks
and standards will probably involve several more
years of effort by businesses, investors, and
standard-setting organizations—which have
begun to identify gaps and redundancies among
disclosures—and by other stakeholders, such as
civil-society groups and regulators. As it is, many
investors avoid participating in standard-setting
efforts. Some we interviewed said they distance
themselves because they feel that standard setting
should address their needs as a matter of course.
Yet some standard setters told us they assume
that investors can readily obtain the sustainability
information they value and therefore focus on the
interests of other stakeholders.
Our conversations lead us to believe that there’s
some truth to both viewpoints. Yet our survey
findings and interviews also suggest that investors
could make valuable contributions to standardsetting efforts if they chose to increase their
participation. Active investors are likelier to do
so, since they pay more attention than index
investors to the sustainability disclosures of
individual companies. Until investors clarify which
sustainability disclosures they want and help to
rationalize frameworks and standards, sustainability
reports might continue to deliver less material
information than they would like.
Investors can do several other things to make
better use of the sustainability-related information
companies now make available. First, they can
articulate the sustainability disclosures that matter
most for their investment decisions and convey
these interests to businesses. Going a step further,
more investors could engage companies (through
direct dialogue and shareholder voting) about their
approach to managing sustainability issues.
More investors could also adopt the still-uncommon
practice of collecting and analyzing data from
sources other than corporate sustainability reports
and disclosures. Some investors have developed
algorithms that automatically gather nonfinancial
data from public sources (such as government
databases of health and safety incidents or websites
where people post comments about their employers)
and scan these data for patterns that relate
meaningfully to corporate financial performance.
Exhibit 4
GES 2019
More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want
Exhibit 4 of 4
Many investors believe that harmonized sustainability-reporting standards will attract more
capital to sustainable investors, though some express concern about losing an edge.
Investors who agree with statement about eect of harmonized standards, % of respondents1
Note: Figures may not sum to 100%, because of rounding.
1 Respondents who answered “agree” or “strongly agree”; n = 57.
Source: McKinsey Sustainability Reporting Survey
Will help attract more capital
to sustainable investments
Will weaken proprietary
insights or specialized
or di…erentiated products
Will have
both e…ects
described
63 19 15
100
8 More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want
As the market for sustainable investments expands,
more investors are taking a keen interest in
sustainability reports from companies. Yet the
information these investors find seldom meets
their expectations. From an investor’s standpoint,
sustainability disclosures tend to be loosely related
to financial performance, difficult to compare from
one company to another, and less than reliable.
Investors who take part in efforts to improve
sustainability-reporting practices could gain an
edge over their more detached peers. Executives
and board members should stay attuned to these
efforts, and even participate in them, to maintain
their companies’ standing with shareholders.

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