Summary of Key Concepts

1. The environmental and social dimensions are similar in that they do not define wealth in terms of possessions that have a price in the market place (unless they are used as raw materials that enter the economic dimension). Therefore it is sometimes difficult to determine the cost and benefits (the value) of initiatives designed to protect the environmental resources and implement social initiatives.

Sustainability requires everyone to act in a principled, ethical manner, but progress on these efforts is sometimes difficult to determine. Think about how an organization would report whether it is accomplishing any of the following:

  • acting as a good citizen;
  • being a steward for investors’ investments;
  • eliminating corruption;
  • being transparent;
  • providing fair and reasonable compensation;
  • acting in a fair and just manner, especially when using others’ resources (e.g. the shareholders’ and the banks’ investment).

2. Look for a statement of values in an organization’s sustainability report. Its reporting should demonstrate actions that reflect those values. As you read the organization’s statement of values and its report, try to assess the relative importance of economic, social, and environmental aspects. You might find any of the following:

  • equal emphasis among the economic, environment, and social;
  • less emphasis on the environment than the economic and social;
  • less emphasis on the social than the economic and the environment; or
  • some other emphasis.

The emphasis that an organization chooses depends on the dimensions that are critical to the specific business and its industry. Not all organizations will have the same emphasis among the three dimensions.

3. To be perceived as responsible and serious about sustainable operations, an entity’s values must be consistent in three ways:

  • its own actions;
  • its stakeholders’ values; and
  • broader society’s demands and expectations.

However, because society is made up of individuals with different interpretations of short and long term, the importance of individual vs. community rights, and the priority of human rights vs. nature, an entity’s values and performance may be different from your individual expectations.

4. Watch for an indication that a report was prepared according to the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Reporting Guidelines. There are three reporting levels: A, B and C.

The level does not indicate absolute quality differences, only that more information was reported. If a “+” follows the reporting level, then the report, or parts of the report, were check by an auditor.

5. Both readers and preparers of sustainability reports benefit, especially when the activities reported address the overlap of economic and environment or economic and social considerations. Although the benefits are sometimes difficult to measure initially, organizations are realizing increased benefits in two broad aspects of their operations:

  • continued attention to performance by using reports for internal decisions; and
  • a better understanding of stakeholders’ points of view through the external communications provided by the reports.