What is sustainability reporting?

February 28, 2023

Sustainability reporting permeates disciplines and corporate structures.

Climate change is a planet-sized issue whose scope affects everyone: individuals, organizations, and the delicate ecological balance they both depend on to survive. But without systems to see how humans affect their environments, the climate crisis may be a problem without a solution.

This is precisely the gap sustainability reporting seeks to bridge. But what is sustainability reporting? It’s a practice the vast majority of high-performing brands have adopted; its purpose is to collect, measure, and communicate data about an organization’s footprint—and the strides they’re making to minimize it.

Today, it’s not important whether you’re a rapidly scaling startup, a multinational brand, or a small, local NGO with a tight-knit team. Corporate sustainability reporting is part of what it means to be a responsible member of the modern business community, and beyond that, an inhabitant of planet Earth.

Sustainability reporting in context

Businesses have been pursuing a clearer picture of their environmental impact for nearly 50 years, but the sustainability reporting movement didn’t gain cross-industry momentum until around the millennium. The main goal of these sustainability initiatives was to meet the demand for:

  • Corporate transparency, especially post-2008, where economic turmoil sewed unprecedented distrust between consumers and companies (whether huge multinationals or smaller-scale businesses).
  • Corporate responsibility, in both principle and practice. Consumers demanded companies bring ethics to the center of their mission and activities, and their preference to vote with their dollars for companies exhibiting the most responsibility is more robust than ever.
  • Corporate accountability, the idea being that measuring impact using data provides an empirical, objective framework whereby businesses can better manage risk, gauge progress, and create solutions for globally scaled problems like climate change.

Put simply, sustainability is no longer siloed. Sustainability reporting now permeates multiple disciplines and across corporate structures—including operations, finance, legal, marketing, and HR—to convey the business impact on society and the planet holistically. 

What does a sustainability report include?

As data-centric as sustainability reports are, individual companies have a fair amount of flexibility concerning what they include. The metrics you track may be as narrow as your business’s emissions goals or as broad as tracking an entire framework of measuring your impact.

Originally, the goal of sustainability reporting was to align with the target benchmarks and sustainability goals established by a business at the outset of its initiatives. But sustainability reporting—and how businesses define what it means to be sustainable—has evolved since then.

Today, several sustainability standards have been developed, allowing companies to better compare their progress to their peers and competitors. These differ along climate-specific disclosures, broad sustainability disclosures, and financial ESG disclosures, creating unique criteria across different industries.

The International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), for example, organizes its climate-specific and broad sustainability disclosures to consolidate three separate frameworks: Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), and Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB).

Sustainability reporting in practice: Real-world examples

Climate change is a monumental problem, and the possible ways of addressing it using sustainability reporting are almost as vast. For this reason, it may help to preview some of the best sustainability report design examples and how other real-world companies have applied the practice in their businesses to successfully drive down the impact and drive up business success: 

  • UPS 2021 GRI Report – Like many large institutional companies, UPS used the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards for their sustainability reports. The company spotlighted environmental progress and social equity within its report and financial disclosures (including total revenue for the reporting year). The aim was to foster a culture of transparency with consumers.
  • Chipotle 2021 Sustainability Report – Chipotle stylized its 2021 sustainability report as a thorough, comprehensive, and credible data report and a consumer-friendly guide showcasing its values as a company. The company focused on areas its consumers and stakeholders would find most relevant: Food and Animals, People, and Environment. It also spotlighted awards—like scoring 100 on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index—and recognized the achievement of former ESG goals.

Other examples in insurance, finance, and accounting

Financial firms occupy a unique position within the sustainability reporting movement. As high-risk institutions, collecting accurate data on investments and initiatives is particularly crucial for their relationship with investors and the greater public.

Morgan Stanley’s 2021 report exemplifies this position. The firm highlights the intersection between institutional and sustainability goals by organizing their report into thematic focus areas, including:

  1. Mobilizing the societal transition to a green, low-carbon economy
  2. Mitigating the current threats posed by climate change
  3. Creating a more transparent company culture
  4. Reaching internal carbon neutrality and powering the company using exclusively renewable energy sources

survey from McKinsey reported that investors named “inconsistency, incomparability, and lack of alignment in standards” as one of the top complaints among finance companies embarking on sustainability reporting. This critique isn’t unique to financial firms, however. This is a common criticism among all of ESG reporting. It’s also why there’s a need for a supportive ESG reporting platform that can be tailored to meet the needs of various industry standards. 

Fortunately, developments in the software sector are making the process of sustainability reporting more streamlined, accurate, and credible—not just for financial institutions but for smaller firms as well. Sustain.Life, for example, harmonizes onerous reporting requirements, even while consolidated frameworks like the IFRS sustainability and climate disclosures take shape.

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Why does sustainability reporting matter?

The benefits of sustainability reporting aren’t solely about creating more economic accountability or even giving businesses a clearer picture of their footprints. 

For enterprises and entrepreneurs across and between industries, sustainability reporting is also an opportunity to:

  • Earn consumer trust – Mountains of data acquired from reports on market trends show that today’s buyers want to support brands that prioritize sustainability. Forbes reported in 2020 that some 68% of highly empowered consumers are actively searching for brands with a commitment to reducing their environmental impact, and that figure is expected to grow.
  • Become leaders in their field – Participating in sustainability reporting means businesses are actively contributing to the ongoing dialogue of what it means to be sustainable in the first place. By stepping into a proactive, future-proof stance, companies build authority in their fields and more meaningful relationships with the public.

But aside from boosting companies’ bottom line, sustainability reporting matters the same way climate change matters: As human beings, we share a single home. Each of us, whether individuals or organizations, has a role in preserving it for future generations. 

Future trends in sustainability reporting

One of the paramount challenges climate change poses is its unpredictability. Scientists speculate that warming the planet by even a few degrees could create chaotic conditions that are inherently challenging to solve.

With that, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) forecasts some notable changes and necessities for the business world in the near future:

  • Refinements in ESG regulations, like standardization, establishing a shared vocabulary and holding businesses accountable for “greenwashing” the data they present to the public.
  • Streamlining reporting systems so that reports are more legible and usable to the people that read them, whether stakeholders or the general public.
  • Prioritizing small business sustainability is a trend that’s poised to make sustainability reporting a standard practice for businesses. One 2021 report from Harvard Law showed that more than half of small- and medium-sized firms showcased their sustainability commitment on their company website.

As signs of ecological disruption grow sharper, refining human systems that evaluate our environmental impact is becoming evermore critical. For the good of the planet and for the good of progress, we must devise accurate, efficient tools that can be as sustainable for the companies who use them as they are for the planet.

Sustain.Life: Accurate, pro-planet sustainability reporting at scale

If there’s a silver lining to the era of climate change, it’s the call to collaborate on the solutions that will help save our planet. If you’re a leader who’s ready to answer that call, Sustain.Life’s sustainability management software is designed to help you hit your stride as a sustainable entrepreneur.

Sustain.Life is led by a team that wants to change the face of business. We offer streamlined software for measuring, managing, and generating sustainability reports for businesses. Take a closer look at the environmental data software that’s adaptable as your business is and request a sustainability software demo with us today.


1. KPMG. The Time Has Come. https://assets.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/xx/pdf/2020/11/the-time-has-come.pdf Accessed February 28, 2023

2. Harvard Business Review. Designing Your Company’s Sustainability Report. https://hbr.org/2022/01/designing-your-companys-sustainability-report Accessed February 28, 2023

3. UPS. 2021 | GRI. https://about.ups.com/content/dam/upsstories/assets/reporting/sustainability-2021/2021%20UPS%20GRI%20Report.pdf Accessed February 28, 2023

4. Chipotle. 2021 Chipotle Sustainability Report Update – Cultivate a Better World. https://www.chipotle.com/content/dam/chipotle/global-site-design/en/documents/sustainability/CHP_2021_SustainabilityReport_Revised_5-20.pdf Accessed February 28, 2023

5. Morgan Stanley. 2021 Sustainability Report. https://www.morganstanley.com/content/dam/msdotcom/en/assets/pdfs/Morgan_Stanley_2021_Sustainability_Report.pdf Accessed February 28, 2023

6. McKinsey Sustainability. More than values: The value-based sustainability reporting that investors want. https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/sustainability/our-insights/more-than-values-the-value-based-sustainability-reporting-that-investors-want Accessed February 28, 2023

7. Forbes. Empowered Consumers Call For Sustainability Transformation. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forrester/2021/01/21/empowered-consumers-call-for-sustainability-transformation/?sh=4d3ef6c2042f Accessed February 28, 2023

8. University of Copenhagen. Dramatic climate change is unpredictable. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100830094922.htm Accessed February 28, 2023

9. Business for Social Responsibility. Upcoming Regulations in ESG Ratings: Three Implications for Business. https://www.bsr.org/en/blog/upcoming-regulations-in-esg-ratings-three-implications-for-business Accessed February 28, 2023

10. Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance. A Survey of Sustainability Disclosures by Small and Mid-Cap Companies. https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2021/03/05/a-survey-of-sustainability-disclosures-by-small-and-mid-cap-companies/ Accessed February 28, 2023

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
Ben Gruitt
Ben Gruitt is a senior manager of sustainable solutions at Sustain.Life. He has over five years experience as a carbon solutions manager, consultant, and technical lead that integrates sustainability into organizational culture.
The takeaway

Sustainability is no longer siloed. Sustainability reporting now permeates disciplines and corporate structures—including operations, finance, legal, marketing, and HR—to holistically convey the business impact on people and planet.