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What we learn from corporate sustainability reports - an analysis

Dr. Nadine Székely and Prof. Dr. Jan vom Brocke from the Institute of information systems at the University of Liechtenstein have analysed over 9,500 sustainability reports from international companies from the years 1999 to 2015 and developed ten recommendations for practice and research.

The publication of a sustainability report is part of the annual reporting for most large and medium-sized companies. In these reports, companies provide information about their activities and their performance with regard to various sustainability issues. Each company has its own focus.

Two researchers from the University of Liechtenstein collected more than 9,500 reports from 1999 to 2015 and analysed them using text mining algorithms. They identified 42 sustainability issues that companies are addressing in these reports. On the basis of these topics, ten observations and recommendations for practice and research can be derived.

While economic issues have increasingly moved into the focus of the reports in the last few years, the analysis shows that, as a whole, the topics are equally divided between environmental, social and economic sustainability. Regarding environmental sustainability, the focus of the reports is on emissions and resource consumption, in particular on energy consumption. Issues such as biodiversity and renewable energies are of low relevance. In the area of social sustainability, the focus is on employees, but also topics such as customer orientation as well as sponsorship can be often found in the reports. In the context of economic sustainability, companies report mainly on their financial data without much information on governance and codes of conduct. The analysis also shows how different the topics can be in terms of industries and countries.

What do we learn?
Companies should invest in the three areas of ecological, social, and economic sustainability to maximize their potentials. In the area of environmental sustainability, this means expanding the focus and not only concentrating on energy consumption and emissions, but also, for example, on the use of other non-renewable resources, as well as on biodiversity. Organisations should keep employees in the focus of their activities, as going beyond legal requirements might help them to attract new talents. However, other stakeholders should be considered as well. Instead of just reporting on the actual financial data, companies should also inform about the past and future development of their economic results.

The study is published in PLOS ONE, the world's first multidisciplinary open access journal, and can be found at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0174807.