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As sustainability takes root, finance takes notice

CFO Insights

While it has been around in many forms, sustainability has been, admittedly, a squishy topic that’s more likely to be “owned” by the marketing department or viewed as a risk management issue rather than as a strategic priority. However, that appears to be changing quickly. Proponents of sustainability are demanding that companies think more broadly about how they make money, and about the impacts their operations and decisions have on the environment and society.

Sustainability gets real

It’s an issue that has gone by many names: corporate social responsibility (CSR), sustainable development, the “triple bottom line,” ESG (environmental, social, governance), and the green movement, to name just a few. Odds are good that you know it by its shortest and most common name—sustainability. And while it has been around in many forms, sustainability has been, admittedly, a squishy topic that’s more likely to be “owned” by the marketing department or viewed as a risk management issue rather than as a strategic priority for finance.

However, that appears to be changing quickly. Proponents of sustainability—which include investors, consumers, regulators, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), and others—are demanding that companies think more broadly about how they make money, and about the impacts their operations and decisions have on the environment and society. They insist that by addressing a range of nonfinancial factors, from climate change to demographic trends to product labeling, businesses can create long-term shareholder value while preserving natural resources, enhancing social stability, and achieving other quantifiable benefits.

Proponents, in fact, aren’t just advocating for sustainability at a conceptual level; they want hard numbers. Enter the CFO, who may feel that in the wake of a decade-long push for “transparency” there is little corporate information left to disclose. That is not necessarily the case here, however, because companies have not tended to collect the kinds of data that sustainability reporting calls for. In this issue of CFO Insights, we’ll take a look at the rapidly emerging standards that are not only intended to simplify sustainability reporting, but also provide companies with insights that can improve performance—as well as additional steps CFOs can take to improve that reporting and drive value.

Meet the SASB

Multiple efforts exist to create standards for sustainability reporting—the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), for example, can trace its history back 20 years to its 1997 founding in Boston. Various investment groups have also done useful work in this area. More recently, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), created in 2011, is focused on integrating sustainability metrics into current financial reporting requirements.

Toward that end, SASB has developed provisional sustainability standards specific to 79 different industries (using a definition of materiality that is consistent with the one that guides financial reporting1) and therefore suggests that these SASB indicators should be disclosed through the Management Discussion & Analysis (MD&A) section of Form 10-K or 20-F. According to SASB co-vice chair Mary Schapiro, former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the benefits to reporting organizations are also clear: “These standards can help companies identify, measure, and manage a subset of sustainability issues that are the ones most likely to impact the value of the company.”2

A 2015 Harvard Business School study3 agreed, finding that companies that performed well on the material sustainability factors SASB identified enjoy enhanced market returns compared with organizations that performed poorly on those factors. In addition, the study found that companies enjoy significantly higher accounting and market returns when they addressed material sustainability factors.

That focus on materiality should attract a CFO’s attention. Early efforts at sustainability reporting varied widely and were sometimes dismissed as feel-good public relations exercises. Moreover, the focus was often on what impact companies were having on the environment (think greenhouse gas emissions, for example) only. Today, Schapiro notes, the question has flipped, as investors ask what impact climate change, resource scarcity, labor sourcing, and a host of other ESG issues may have on companies’ financial performance. “Viewing sustainability issues through the lens of financial performance has been an important development over the last couple of years,” Schapiro has noted. (For more, see “Creating a framework for sustainability disclosure.”)

While the SEC has yet to mandate much in the way of sustainability reporting (a 2010 requirement that companies disclose whether they believe climate change poses a material risk is one notable exception, as is a requirement imposed by the Dodd-Frank Act that, under certain circumstances, companies disclose their use of conflict minerals), it did issue a concept release (Reg S-K) in 2016 seeking feedback on various aspects of disclosure, including whether and how sustainability disclosures should evolve to meet the needs of the market. And the market clearly believes it has needs: 66 percent of unique (i.e., nonform) SEC comment letters addressed sustainability disclosure, and 85 percent of those called for improved disclosure of sustainability data in SEC filings.

SASB provides a number of tools and resources designed to help companies approach such disclosure in an efficient, “decision-useful” way, by focusing on the sustainability metrics relevant to their industry and likely to drive value. The organization also offers guidance on how management can align its definitions of “materiality”—a worthwhile goal,5 SASB says, because companies often define it differently for different audiences, exposing themselves to legal risk. Toward that end, it provides a sustainability classification system that categorizes companies based on their resource intensity and their sustainability risks and opportunities, rather than their sources of revenue. There is also a five-factor test available that helps companies assess relevant sustainability risks and opportunities across various considerations, ranging from direct financial impacts to opportunities for innovation.

The push for greater reporting on sustainability issues gained additional traction at the end of 2016, when the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, which former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg chairs, issued its initial recommendations. Its intent is to “provide investors, lenders, and insurance underwriters with consistent (and widely adoptable) climate-related financial disclosures that are useful in understanding material climate-related risks.”

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Beyond reporting

While reporting may be where the rubber meets the road, particularly for CFOs, there are a number of other steps financial executives can take to build a greater consideration of sustainability issues into long-term planning.

These include the following:

Organize internally—Aligning a company’s internal team is important because sustainability and corporate performance are inextricably linked.6 Addressing material risks (i.e., ESG trends, events, and uncertainties that are reasonably likely to have material impacts on the financial condition or operating performance) requires breaking down silos and engaging in integrated thinking.

Specifically, a more integrated approach can help business leaders better understand the interdependency of strategic decisions (and allocation of resources) related to raw materials, products, processes, operating locations, human capital, and other factors. Such internal coordination can not only help avoid missed opportunities and mixed signals, but also position sustainability within the company’s strategic initiatives and help drive related value creation activities. In one instance, new rules on electronics recycling prompted some leading companies to form a private consortium that provided such services to hundreds of others, which not only resulted in substantial savings but also in a boost to the companies’ reputation among consumers and regulators.7

Focus on the material issues—There is a reason SASB is so focused on materiality: Research indicates that companies that perform well on material sustainability issues enjoy the strongest financial returns.8 Material risks vary depending on the industry, and determining which ESG risks need to be treated as material is an essential step in crafting a sustainability disclosure strategy. But, without question, material sustainability risks can affect a company’s financial reporting in a number of ways, having both short- and long-term impacts.

For example, SASB standards for the air freight and logistics industry include a metric on “total fuel consumed” and “percentage renewable,” suggesting that fuel management is material to companies in that industry (the final determination is for each company to decide). Recognition of fuel management as a material sustainability issue, and incorporation into the company’s strategic initiatives, can positively affect a company’s financial performance in the short term through decreased fuel expenses. In the longer term, decreasing the company’s fuel consumption overall and increasing its use of renewables can positively impact the company’s brand and potentially drive demand for the company’s services from business partners and consumers. The company is also able to reduce carbon emissions, which represent costs in the form of increasing regulation and inefficiency, and mitigate the risks of fuel shortages or price volatility.

CFOs hardly need to be told that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” but they may not have considered that, as the previous example illustrates, by tracking a range of sustainability metrics, they can manage sustainability performance and spot new ways to create value.

Tell your story—Recent developments, both in the United States and internationally, demonstrate the increasing focus on sustainability among investors, companies, and policymakers. Organizations ranging from the World Federation of Exchanges to the Financial Stability Board to the United Nations and the European Union, not to mention various industry consortia, have issued calls for greater disclosure on climate impact and other issues that fall under the ESG umbrella. Even if some lawmakers deprioritize it, this marketplace momentum demonstrates that sustainability is becoming a more urgent matter for public companies—and should be a wake-up call to CFOs and other C-suite executives about the potential risks of inaction.

While the sustainability standards and reporting frameworks that the aforementioned organizations have developed can help executive teams focus on the types of information to disclose, management should also loop in various stakeholders to assess which ESG impacts are material, and how those impacts can map to risks and to potential opportunities to drive value. This assessment and mapping approach can help companies take greater control of their sustainability disclosure efforts and more efficiently respond to the many requests for information, not to mention avoid diluting the relevance and value of such disclosure. Providing a single, clear story about the company’s sustainability efforts and strategy, backed by data, may be more effective than responding on an ad-hoc basis. As mentioned, a single consistent message can avoid management and legal risks regarding improper disclosure, as well.

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A path to sustainability leadership

There is no doubt that sustainability is a critical facet of risk management. Of the top five risks (ranked by impact) cited in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Risks Report, four concern environmental issues. And in the most recent (May 2017) Forbes Insights survey, conducted on behalf of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, sustainability/CSR ranked as the top current risk having an impact on corporate strategy. Put simply, “If you ignore sustainability, you’re going to be worthless,” according to Goldman Sachs.9 In other words, if left unaddressed, sustainability-related risks could turn into clear and tangible financial impacts.

But sustainability is not just about risk mitigation—the same data that investors are demanding that companies report can be useful to companies as they look for ways to reduce costs and expand investments in promising new areas. Companies that address these issues directly with the guidance and involvement of the CFO can be better prepared to create enterprise value even as they meet stakeholder demands for increased sustainability reporting. So, don’t just run the numbers and report: Use them to create new forms of sustainable value.

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Creating a framework for sustainability disclosure

Editor’s note: Mary Schapiro, vice chair of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and former chair of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), spoke recently with Kristen Sullivan, Deloitte Risk and Financial Advisory partner, Deloitte & Touche LLP, and leader of its Sustainability Risk Services practice, about SASB’s work in developing a framework for disclosure, and why CFOs should address sustainability issues. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

Kristen Sullivan: How are the expectations of the investor and analyst communities changing with respect to sustainability reporting?

Mary Schapiro: We’re seeing a demand for information that’s backed by actual data. They want it to be comparable and reliable across businesses, or across companies within an industry. And they want it to be materiality focused, so that it’s decision-useful. Investors also want to see the information within a SEC filing, so that it has gone through the processes and the controls over financial reporting that we would expect of financial statements. Their expectations are rising all the time, and that increases demands on companies to do more.

Sullivan: For CFOs who haven’t fully incorporated sustainability reporting in their interactions with investors and regulators, why should they reconsider?

Schapiro: Traditionally, this area has been the domain of sustainability officers rather than CFOs and CEOs, but I think that’s changing. One of the reasons is that standards like SASB’s—while not yet as broadly adopted as we expect they will be—focus on the financial impact. And CFOs have to care about that: It has to be important to them in terms of fulfilling their reporting obligations, and also as they shepherd the company through its strategic plan and day-to-day business.

Sullivan: Where can companies start to expand their focus on sustainability issues and reporting?

Schapiro: First, engaging with SASB in the codification of the standards for their industry would be enormously helpful. Becoming familiar with the SASB standards for their industry and following the implementation guide for companies are important first steps. One of the values of having this kind of reporting ultimately will be an ability for corporate leaders to compare themselves to their peers and understand how they’re performing versus their peers on material sustainability factors. That kind of transparency helps drive better performance.

For the full interview, see “For Mary Schapiro, Sustainability Disclosures Are Gaining Ground,” Deloitte Module, Risk & Compliance Journal, Wall Street Journal, December 2016.

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CFO Insights, a bi-weekly thought leadership series, provides an easily digestible and regular stream of perspectives on the challenges you are confronted with. View the library of CFO Insights.


1. Materiality has both a colloquial and a legal definition, as explained in “Three Myths about the SASB and Materiality.” See

2. “For Mary Schapiro, Sustainability Disclosures Are Gaining Ground.” Deloitte Module, Wall Street Journal, Risk & Compliance Journal, December 2016. Available at:

3. “Corporate Sustainability: First Evidence on Materiality,” 2015 Working Paper, Mozaffar Khan, George Serafeim, Aaron Yoon, Harvard Business School. Available at:

4. “For Mary Schapiro, Sustainability Disclosures Are Gaining Ground.” Deloitte Module, Wall Street Journal, Risk & Compliance Journal, December 2016. Available at:

5. “Materiality: Why is it important?” SASB. Available at

6. Ibid.

7. “Why Sustainability Is Now the Key Driver of Innovation,” Harvard Business Review, September 2009, by Ram Nidumolu, C.K. Prahalad, and M.R. Rangaswami.

8. “Corporate Sustainability: First Evidence on Materiality,” 2015 Working Paper, Mozaffar Khan, George Serafeim, Aaron Yoon, Harvard Business School.

9. “Goldman Sachs: If You Ignore Sustainability, You’re Going to Be Worth Less.” Forbes, November 2015. Available at:

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