Sustainability Accounting Standards Matter Now: Reflections from ISSP ’14

SASB logoBy Devon Bertram

Last week’s International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) annual conference, held in Denver, Colorado, was an opportunity for more than 200 sustainability professionals to come together. They not only shared their stories and insights from their experiences, but also learned from leaders in their fields about trends in the industry, updates on existing tools and frameworks, new resources, lessons learned, and thoughts of the future.

As a first-time ISSP conference attendee, I was struck both by the intimate nature of the conference and the opportunity to connect with the range of attendees, as well as the valuable content of the sessions and varied format that enabled an engaging and dynamic experience. While there was a wide offering of session topics, a few themes took hold:

  • We are in a time of both urgency and opportunity: While we can still be hopeful (and, in my opinion, must be to move forward with grace and support), action needs to happen now in both small incremental steps and even more so, broad and grand changes.
  • Sustainability reporting is being embraced by more and more companies and organizations as a means of sharing metrics and their story: Each are finding ways to make it relevant and valuable to their work, and their customers.
  • Collaboration and partnerships are essential to navigate the challenges that businesses and industries are and will be facing: Expertise gathered from various sectors can support a systems thinking approach and present more informed and appropriate solutions.

Supporting these themes comes the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB). While SASB did not hold a focused panel or workshop, its integration and mention throughout a handful of sessions demonstrates its budding presence and relevance in the sustainability field, both today and in the future.

SASB is likened to such standards as the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), yet the key differences among these reporting frameworks are the geography, stakeholders and scope. Launched in October 2012, SASB is developing standards focused on environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance metrics from over 89 different industries across 10 sectors. These standards are designed to be included in SEC forms 10-K or 20-F, and help organizations and investors gain a more holistic picture of a company. Its work is in varied stages of development: Numerous standards have been released (including healthcare, financials, technology and communications, non-renewable resources, and transportation), while others are open for public comment or integrating feedback, or are in the initial stages of recruiting industry working group participants.

SASB is a response to the continuing desire for transparency, and the need for a disclosure mechanism that is aligned with the mandatory and traditional financial reporting that public companies are obligated to participate in. Clients may be wary of taking on yet another reporting standard, yet SASB’s intention is to further integrated reporting and push companies to be more transparent, enabling organizations and investors to make more informed decisions.

While SASB and its stakeholders find their way in the reporting world, it seems most important to consider how the various sustainability frameworks and standards (SASB, IIRC, GRI, CDP, among others) can support and engage with one another and ensure each has its own distinction. It is unclear what traction SASB will take, but it looks promising. With a leadership team consisting of members from both the SEC and the Financial Accounting Standards Board, and with Michael Bloomberg on the board, there is a feeling that it isn’t going anywhere and is something for the industry to get familiar with. It was even stated in one ISSP session that “all are going to be reporting with [SASB] within three years.”

As the ISSP themes indicate, sustainability reporting and action has been gaining a steady hold across industries, and SASB, it seems, has come at a perfect time to join this trend. Keep your eyes out and ears open. My guess is we will be hearing more from them.

Image credit: SASB

Devon Bertram is a Sustainability Manager with YR&G, a firm with offices in Denver, New York, and Chicago that provides technical and strategic sustainability consulting for buildings, communities, and corporations around the country and internationally. 

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