Capitalism aims to achieve maximum profit by ignoring the environment and society. Lately, this has resulted in many social and environmental scandals, destroying the public’s confidence in companies and markets. Therefore to make markets and companies trustable again governments have created many new laws and rules which depend on trust and truth. Accordingly, companies have not only endeavoured to make their financial statements more reliable to ensure truth and trust, but they have also become inclined to increase their environmental and social responsibility activities and to report them.
Environmental and social responsibility reporting can be considered as an informing tool for companies regarding their related responsibilities surrounding the business. Like companies inform shareholders about financial issues, they must also inform stakeholders about their environmental and social performance in reports. Recently, corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting has grown into an important topic globally. According to an international survey of the KPMG, 71% of the 4,100 companies surveyed published CSR reports besides their annual reports in 2013.
Many experimental studies in the literature have analysed the effects of corporate social responsibility on corporations’ financial performance. Although a consensus cannot been reached regarding CSR’s positive effects in the short term, results do indicate its value creation effect on financial performance in the long term. However, CSR reporting (as being disclosure tool for CSR) is not trustworthy because of the lack of regulatory framework as well as the voluntary and non-standardised practices of it.
In this article, CSR and corporate sustainability (CS) are first clarified with regard to their impacts on companies’ financial performance. Subsequently, different types of CSR and CS reports are introduced, followed by regulations of CSR, CS, and financial reporting, as well as related problems. Finally, the article presents the relationship between CSR, CS, and financial performance.
2. CSR and CS in Business
2.1. What Does CSR Mean?
Although many different definitions of CSR are proposed in the literature, one of the most prominent and accurate ones is that of the European Commission: CSR is a concept whereby companies integrate their social and environmental responsibilities into their business operations and their interaction with stakeholders on the basis of voluntariness.
The opinion that besides financial issues, companies are also responsible for environmental and social issues dates back to the 1920s. The community thinks that companies have responsibilities to society, and therefore intensely scrutinises these responsibilities. Lately, the demand for CSR has increased. Especially corporate scandals have garnered communities’ attention to the responsibilities and social roles of business.
With regard to financial theory, the primary goal of a company is the maximisation of its shareholders’ wealth; however, stakeholders’ impacts are also important to achieve this goal. Freeman propounds in stakeholder theory that companies are related to stakeholders, who influence and are influenced by companies’ activities. Stakeholders are generally motivated by nonmonetary concerns such as companies’ effects on environmental and social issues including labourer relations, civil rights, plant closures, social relations, corporate ethics, and a greener environment.
The notion of stakeholders is different and broader than the notion of shareholders. Tencati, Perrini and Pogutz propose stakeholders’ division into eight categories: employees, members/shareholders, financial community, clients/customers, suppliers, financial partners, government, community, and environment.
2.2. What Does CS Mean and What Is the Difference Between CSR and CS?
CS is another important term to define the environmental and social contributions and results of business operations. CS takes CSR one step further by addressing the economic perspective. The term CS (in other words sustainable development) was popularised by the World Commission on Economic Development (WCED) in its ‘Our Common Future Report’.
According to the WCED’s CS definition, if companies’ needs can be met without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own needs, then improvement is sustainable. Moreover, some researchers have improved the WCED definition in a broader perspective and identified CS as a three-dimensional structure that involves social, environmental, and economic dimensions.
2.3. Effects of CSR and CS on Financial Performance
Many experimental studies in the literature have analysed the correlation between corporations’ economic and social performance. The outcomes of the initial studies were diverse. While some found a positive correlation, others found a negative one. Moreover, some studies found no correlation at all. However, newer studies assert that in the long run, a positive correlation between CSR and financial performance is more common.
The main advantages of CSR that are thought to have a positive effect on financial performance are reducing cost and risk, strengthening legitimacy and reputation, building competitive advantage, and creating win-win situations through synergistic value creation. Cost and risk reduction assertions are based on the idea that CSR may enable a company to realise tax benefits and avoid strict regulations, which could decrease its expenditures. In addition, the company could decrease stakeholders’ discrepancy risk with CSR activities. Moreover, CSR activities might help a company to boost its reputation and legitimacy by meeting the competing needs of the stakeholders as well as operating profitability. Hence, a company could be seen as an insider of its community and its operations would be ratified. As for competitive advantage assertions, by adopting CSR activities a company could be able to create powerful relationships with its stakeholders, gaining their support and loyalty and creating value. Finally, regarding synergistic value creation assertions, only CSR activities can provide chances for companies to meet the needs of stakeholders and to chase financial objectives simultaneously.
2.4. Customer Demand for CSR
Although all stakeholders demand CSR, especially customer demand is highly important for companies to survive. Recent surveys, in the Forbes CSR Blog, have shown that more than 88% of customers think that companies should reach their business goals without failing to contribute to the environment and society.
Hopkins claims that it will be easier for a company following a CSR program to garner customer attention: its products will be more attractive for customers. In other words, CSR can result in a positive image and branding for the company. For instance, McDonald's does not only recruit handicapped people, but also supports organisations such as the Ronald McDonald House to build a better reputation. The general view is that customer satisfaction with CSR brings a competitive advantage because it contributes to the company’s financial performance and long-term value.
2.5. Value Creation in the Long Term
The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) defines value creation as the process of taking inputs and transforming them with business operations to produce outputs with a positive value for the companies, stakeholders, environment, and society in the short, medium, and long term.
Value creation is one of the ultimate goals of a company in terms of its sustainability. To achieve this goal, organisations must consider their relationships with their stakeholders, society, and the environment. Stakeholders’ behaviours directly affect a company’s financial performance and value creation abilities. For instance, if a company performs CSR and sustainability well by meeting stakeholders’ needs, those stakeholders (such as customers, creditors, or the government) will support that company’s operations financially. Consequently, the company will improve its reputation, long-term value creation, and financial performance.
In contrast, a long term protest by stakeholders can cause a company to collapse. In that vein, many boycotting and protesting campaigns have been executed by stakeholders against numerous companies in recent years. For instance, Apple and Primark were protested due to the poor conditions faced by their employees, and BP was protested for its deep-water oil spill disaster. After these protests, these companies worked diligently to recover their image and reputation, because they were aware of the difficulty of creating value without their stakeholders’ support and knew that without it, they would most likely collapse in the long term.
3. CSR Reporting and Its Advanced Versions
3.1. CSR Reporting
Pressure from stakeholders forces companies to prepare non-financial reports that disclose their social and environmental impacts. With the purpose of building trust and reputation in society, companies make the effort to prove that they fulfil their social and environmental responsibilities. Contrary to general belief, however, CSR reporting has a long history. Initially it took place mainly through disclosures in companies’ annual financial reports.
Recently, environmental and social reporting implementations have started to be called sustainability reporting, which includes the economic dimension of sustainability besides the environmental and social ones. Many frameworks have been developed in the academic literature over the last 25 years with regard to narrative non-financial CSR and CS reporting. Of these frameworks, the prominent ones are the triple bottom line, Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) sustainability reporting, and integrated reporting frameworks.
3.2. Triple Bottom Line
The triple bottom line (TBL) concept started to gain in popularity at the end of the 1990s. It provided a new perspective to explain the relationship between CSR activities and the economic bottom line. The TBL considers three elements, ‘people, planet, and profit’, which come together to achieve sustainability.
The three goals of TBL are to create financially secure organisations (economic goal), to minimise organisations’ negative environmental impacts (environmental goal), and to conform organisations’ activities to society’s expectations (social goal). The inter-relationships between each element can be seen below.
Figure 1- Inter-Relationships Between TBL’s Elements
3.3. Sustainability Reporting
Contrary to CSR, sustainability reporting is a new concept (like TPL) that is commonly used to clarify the relationships between companies’ environmental, social, and economic performance. In particular, socially and environmentally risky companies (e.g., oil, mining, and chemical) publish sustainability reports to build trust in the community. They aim to avoid the risk of reputation and sustainability loss cause by a probable social or environmental scandal.
The most accepted sustainability reporting framework was developed by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and is called the ‘GRI Sustainability Reporting Guidelines’. The GRI is a networked organisation with the mission of providing a reliable framework for sustainability reporting.
Sustainability reporting has many potential external and internal benefits. These are discussed in the following paragraph.
Firstly, sustainability reporting can positively affect stakeholders’ perception of companies and enhance reputation management of the latter by meeting stakeholders’ expectations regarding environmental, social, and economic dimensions. Furthermore, sustainability reporting helps companies to strengthen risk awareness and management by disclosing their risk management commitment related to their sustainability performance drivers. In addition, sustainability reporting enables a company to disclose its commitment to the environment and society with an economic perspective for better stakeholder communication, while simultaneously demonstrating transparency. Whereas internal management reporting focuses on sustainability data, which is limited to the directors’ perspective, sustainability reporting considers broader external data with the perspective of continuous performance improvement regarding sustainability.
Furthermore, some regulatory acts (like greenhouse gas emission data reporting) are being created, and sustainability reporting may assist companies in responding rapidly to these new regulations in the near future by way of improving regulatory compliance. Furthermore, sustainability reporting may also encourage innovation and improve competitiveness of companies. For instance, sustainability reporting may enable companies to better understand stakeholders’ needs and expectations, which can encourage companies to develop innovative goods and services, thereby also boosting their competiveness. In addition, sustainability reporting aims to develop a framework to create long-term value that includes not only generating satisfying profits, but also meeting the requests of different stakeholder groups. Lastly, sustainability reporting generally comprises gathering data about the usage of materials and resources with the purpose of evaluating business processes. This practice helps to seize better opportunities and to use materials efficiently, which may stimulate financial value enhancement by making it easier to reduce costs and to increase revenue.
The main process of realising the potential benefits of successful sustainability reporting can be seen in following the figure.
(KPMG, 2008, p. 13.)
3.4. Integrated Reporting
Integrated reporting takes CSR and sustainability reporting one step further by combining different reporting practices together with the purpose of value creation. Integrated reporting aims to bring together material data concerning companies’ governance, strategies, expectations, and performance as a part of the economic, environmental, and social extent where they operate. In this way, integrated reporting compendiously represents how a company performs management and how it generates sustainable value.
Integrated reporting has been developed by the International Integrated Reporting Committee (IIRC). The IIRC which was founded to create a worldwide accepted framework for integrated reporting in 2010. The IIRC has a network-based structure comprised not only of the financial sector, but also of the sustainability sector. They work together to create a framework that aims to bring together all material data concerning financial, environmental, social, and governance issues in a concise, consistent, clear, and comparable concept.
The IIRC endeavours to meet the different stakeholders’ demand for a broader information set with a framework that can conform to future reporting practices and their increasing complexity. This framework should bring together the divergent reporting strands to disclose a company’s current and future value creation ability.
Integrated reporting brings extra benefits to former CSR reporting practices. Because of its broader extent, integrated reporting demonstrates the results of a company’s material performance better than traditional CSR reporting does. It brings into view a company’s dependence on various resources and capital (such as human, financial, and environmental sources) and its ability to access and impact them. Moreover, integrated reporting may enable a company to create a business model and strategy for long-term sustainability, to meet the information needs of most stakeholders, and to allocate scarce resources effectively.
4. Regulations for CSR, CS, and Financial Reports
4.1. Regulations for CSR and CS Reports
Because CSR and CS reports are mostly not mandatory, regulations and laws are important to generalise their usage. Most companies spend almost all of their time on financial performance and mandatory financial statements, and thus do not want to allocate their time to non-obligatory reports about CSR and CS. However, there is strong pressure from stakeholders for this kind of reporting, and new regulations are therefore an inevitability.
So far, some limited regulations about CSR and CS reporting in the European Union (EU) have been enacted. First, in October 2011 the European Commission (EC) published a press release and defined CSR as companies’ responsibility for their effects on the community, and asked governmental authorities to promote CSR and CS via voluntary and complementary regulations. Following this, in the Single Market Acts I and II the EC declared its aspiration to execute a statute to increase companies’ transparency regarding CSR and CS activities. However, only 15 EU members promoted CSR and CS disclosures. The United Kingdom (as an EU member country before the Brexit) was the first to require that companies make public their greenhouse gas emissions: according to the 2013 rules of the Companies Act 2006, organisations have to clarify the quantification of their greenhouse gas emissions in their annual directors’ reports.
4.2. Regulations for Financial Reporting and Conceptual Framework
Financial reporting concerns the reporting of a company’s financial information to external interested parties. Two main standard-setting bodies regulate the associated standards and rules of financial reporting: the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). While the FASB rules in the United States, the IASB is effective globally. Furthermore, the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation is in service as the oversight body of the IASB, and aims to develop a single set of globally accepted financial reporting standards.
The IASB has proposed a conceptual framework with the purpose of interpreting the concepts of financial reporting and assisting interested parties in preparing and presenting their financial reports. In addition, this framework assists the IASB in developing future IFRSs, and it aims to be useful for users in their decision-making processes. The conceptual framework defines its users only as investors, lenders, and other creditors.
Nowadays, although many different stakeholders are interested in financial reports, the conceptual framework focuses only on a limited group of users. This situation creates a problem for some stakeholders. Because CRS and CS now involve economic and financial aspects, the users of CRS and CS reports also concern financial reports. Therefore, the IASB should take into consideration providing material information for all stakeholders, and the process of convergence between the IASB and FASB could be an important chance to achieve this.
4.3. Impacts of Existing Voluntary Regulations on CSR, CS, and Integrated Reports
As previously mentioned, CSR and CS reports are important for long-term value creation and stakeholder enhancement of a company. However CSR and CS reports are voluntary, whereas financial reports are mandatory for companies. Moreover, there is no regulation regarding how different kinds of CSR and CS reports should be presented to the public. For instance, while some companies disclose their CSR information in notes in annual financial reports, others issue separate reports, or integrated reports. This normlessness creates complexity for the users of these reports.
On the other hand, a lack of mandatory regulations and auditing about CSR and CS reporting results in subjective and manipulated information disclosure. This is because companies tend to be biased in their own favour and can use this lack of regulation and measurement standards to manipulate information for greenwashing.
In the present circumstances, obligating companies to publish integrated reports may seem like the best idea to address the complexity, as integrated reporting aims to bring all different financial and sustainability reports concerning companies’ governance, strategies, expectations, and performances together with financial, environmental, and social extents. Although integrated reporting is subject to some criticism, it focuses on a large range of stakeholders. Therefore, integrated reporting may be an advantageous framework to create more financial value for companies. However, it may be too early to affirm that integrated reporting will meet all needs since it is still in the development stage.
Stakeholders think that companies have responsibilities towards society regarding environmental and social issues such as labourer relations, civil rights, plant closures, social relations, corporate ethics, and a greener environment. Following corporate scandals, stakeholders have placed influential pressure on companies to increase their accountability and to report their CSR activities. Especially customers (as a powerful component of stakeholders) have a great effect on companies’ sustainability.
Even though experimental academic studies do not support a consensus regarding the positive effect of CSR practices on financial performance in the short term, it is believed that CSR and CS reporting enables value creation for financial performance in long term. In addition, this reporting can also provide benefits such as reducing costs, increasing reputation and legitimacy, creating competitive advantage, strengthening risk awareness and management, demonstrating transparency, sustaining performance improvement, enhancing regulatory compliance, encouraging innovation, and improving competitiveness for companies.
For the purpose of creating satisfactory, transparent, effective, and reliable CSR and CS reporting practices for all stakeholders, some important frameworks have been developed, such as the GRI sustainability reporting guidelines and integrated reporting. Even though these frameworks represent great progress in CSR and CS reporting, lack of mandatory regulations and auditing as well as the voluntary nature of the practise have prevented it from establishing trust and accountability. Furthermore, the lack of mandatory regulations regarding CSR and CS reporting results in subjective and manipulated information disclosure.
Integrated reporting brings all different financial and sustainability reports concerning companies’ governance, strategies, expectations, and performance together with financial, environmental, and social extents. Thus, it may be the best option to perform financial, governance, and sustainability reporting together. However, there is a need for mandatory legislations and to focus on the full range of stakeholders with integrated reporting. Although integrated reporting has some problems in practice, it may be the most advantageous framework to create financial value.
In conclusion, CSR and CS practices have many potential benefits for companies. Whereas most of these benefits cannot be correlated with financial performance in the short term, they enable better financial performance with sustainable value creation in the long term by making companies more successful in risk management, stakeholder engagement, competitiveness, transparency, reliability, and reputation. In short, corporate environmental and social responsibility improves financial performance by providing value creation in the long term.
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