Identify sustainability topics

Organisations identify which sustainability topics to measure and manage

Last updated: November 23, 2021

Overview

Organisations decide which sustainability topics to measure, based on the likelihood of the information being decision-useful to one or more of its s stakeholders .

Organisations start by identifying sustainability topics that relate to their significant impacts on people and the natural environment, as judged by the stakeholders themselves. Organisations measure how their impacts create, preserve or erode value for people and the natural environment in order to prioritise managing impacts.

Analysis of an organisation’s significant impacts is also a pre-requisite for identifying how people and the natural environment affect the creation, preservation or erosion of value for the organisation.

While an organisation’s stakeholders experience impact they – alongside exogenous changes in the natural environment – can create or erode value for the organisation, and therefore affect investors’ determination of enterprise value. They are the organisation’s ‘dependencies’. Changing conditions such as pressure from stakeholders, regulation, evolution of corporate purpose and investor preferences are driving a trend in which an organisation’s enterprise value is increasingly reflective of its significant positive and negative impacts (see diagram below).

Figure 1: Identifying sustainability topics

To identify the sustainability topics to manage, organisations can choose to:

  • consult evidence-based lists or tools that predict likely significant impacts or dependencies based on an archetypal organisation in the industry; and/or
  • use a principles-based approach to review business activities and relationships, and engage stakeholders to identify significant impacts and dependencies.

Many organisations use a combination of both approaches.

For either approach, if organisations have no data on a topic (e.g. employment) they will likely start by collecting information against metrics for several potential outcomes related to that topic (e.g. diversity, equitable pay, skills development). Where organisations already have data about their likely outcomes within a topic, they might be able to identify specific outcomes for ongoing measurement straightaway (e.g. gender pay gap).

Figure 2: Different value perspectives: an example

Identifying topics using these concepts helps to ensure that organisations are not just measuring and managing their intended impacts, but also identifying whether unexpected or unintended impacts are occurring or are likely to occur.

This process – like all management actions – is iterative. As an organisation collects more performance information, its understanding of its significant impacts and dependencies increases.

Organisations should repeat this assessment routinely, since organisation’s activities, the significance of topics, how they affect enterprise value, and the organisation’s external environment can all change.


Resources

Identifying significant impacts

Principles-based approaches

GRI Universal Standards

Last updated: 2021

Reporting standards designed to help any organisation understand and disclose their impacts in a way that meets the needs of multiple stakeholders. There are a set of Universal Standards that apply to all organisations, and 35 Topic Standards that contain disclosures for impacts related to economic, environmental and social topics.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: Use the guidance in the Universal Standards (GRI 1, 2 and 3) when conducting a materiality assessment for reporting. This type of materiality assessment also helps identify sustainability topics to measure and manage.

Standard on Applying Principle 1: Engage Stakeholders

Last updated: 2019

Standard and guidance on how to apply the first of SVI’s Social Value Principles.

Use this resource to:

  • Set and revise objectives: Use the guidance on identifying stakeholders, engaging with them, and collecting information to help shape strategy and objectives.
  • Identify sustainability topics: Use the guidance on identifying stakeholders and engaging with them to understand actual and potential significant impacts.

Standard on applying Principle 4: Only Include What is Material

Last updated: 2018

Standard and guidance on how to apply the fourth of SVI’s Social Value Principles.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: Use the guidance on how to determine which impacts must be included to support decision making that optimises value for all stakeholders. It includes two screens for materiality: firstly for outcomes that are relevant and secondly for the outcomes that are most significant.
  • Assess impact: Follow the guidance to determine whether an impact is significant to people or the environment, requiring management.

SDG Impact Standards for Enterprises

Last updated: 2021

Practice standards that provide a common language and a system for integrating sustainable development issues, the Sustainable Development Goals and impact management into business and investment decision-making. These practice standards also outline the ‘ABC’ classification methodology, which helps organisations assess whether an impact ‘Acts to reduce harm’, ‘Benefits stakeholders’, or ‘Contributes to solutions’ in relation to the SDGs.

Use this resource to:

Set up processes and embed practices that orient an organisation towards achieving the SDGs. The SDG Impact Standard contains practice indicators that are relevant to several actions. Use the links below to access guidance for different practice indicators. Alternatively, view the whole guidance document here.

Evidence-based tools

These tools help organisations determine topics they should measure based on data about the types of significant impacts their peers have had.

B Impact Assessment

Last updated: 2019

Tool designed to help organisations measure and manage their impact on workers, community, environment, and customers.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: Fill in the online questionnaire to understand performance on sustainability topics that are likely relevant to manage, based on the organisation’s size, sector, and geography. B Lab’s questionnaire is developed through research and public consultation, and so provides an evidence-based starting point for identifying sustainability topics to measure.
  • Measure sustainability performance: Use the B Impact Assessment as a set of metrics. The questionnaire enables organisations to quickly get started collecting information on performance on sustainability topics that are likely relevant to manage, based on the organisation’s size, sector, and geography.
  • Assess impacts: Fill in the questionnaire to track change in performance over time. Each question is scored – some with reference to social or ecological thresholds – to help the organisation determine whether it is performing sustainably on that topic.
  • Benchmark: Compare performance with peers on each sustainability topic or as a whole organisation. If an organisation scores 80 points or above on the questionnaire, it can apply to be certified as a B Corp. The tool provides guidance to help organisations improve their score every year, and all B Corps must update their responses to the self-assessment to re-certify every three years.

EU Taxonomy

Last updated: 2020

Regulation that sets out performance thresholds for organisations to classify their economic activities as “sustainable” according to European policy objectives.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: Find the economic activities that correspond to the organisation and review what the taxonomy says about likely impacts on sustainability. This can be an input into identifying sustainability topics to measure. This regulation is based on research connecting economic activities to likely significant impacts on six environmental objectives. Currently, research related to objectives of climate change mitigation and adaptation are most developed.

SDG Action Manager

Last updated: 2020

Tool designed to help organisations measure and manage their impacts in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: Fill in the online questionnaire to understand the SDGs most relevant to manage, based on the organisation’s size, sector, and geography. The questionnaire draws from B Lab’s B Impact Assessment and the UN Global Compact’s 10 Principles. It was developed through research and public consultation and so provides an evidence-based starting point for identifying sustainability topics to measure.
  • Measure sustainability performance: Use the SDG Action Manager as a set of metrics. The questionnaire enables organisations to collect performance information on the SDGs that are most relevant to manage, based on the organisation’s size, sector and geography.
  • Assess impact: Fill in the questionnaire to track changes in performance over time. Each question is scored – some with reference to social or ecological thresholds – to help the organisation determine whether it is performing sustainably on that topic.
  • Benchmark: The self-assessment tool helps organisations compare performance with peers on each SDG or as a whole organisation.

UN Corporate Impact Analysis Tool

Last updated: 2021

Tool to help banks and investors understand the actual and potential impacts of their clients and investee companies, as part of their impact management strategies and processes.

Use this resource to:

  • Set and revise objectives: Financial institutions can use the tool to co-define relevant and meaningful objectives for their clients and/or investee companies. It provides an impact analysis and management workflow that starts from the identification of impact associations and needs, facilitates the collection and assessment of impact performance data, and accordingly enables an action plan and specific objectives to be set and monitored over time.
  • Identify sustainability topics: Use the tool to identify impact areas and topics (economic, environmental and social) associated with corporate clients and/or investee companies, based on an objective review (cartography) of the company’s sectoral and geographic breakdown. The tool contains collated research on the association between sectors (ISIC – International Standard Industrial classification) and 22 Impact Areas that cover all the SDGs, as well as a framework to enable a contextualisation of impact associations vis-à-vis the impact needs present in the company’s country(ies) of operation.
  • Measure sustainability performance: Use the Indicator Library embedded within the tool to review existing metrics for impact measurement. UNEP-FI has collated metrics from reporting standards and frameworks (GRI, SASB, CDP, TCFD), impact investor and development bank resources (IRIS+ and HIPSO), government taxonomies (EU Adaptation and Mitigation Taxonomies) and other sources to support indicator selection and interoperability between frameworks. This indicator library primarily supports use of the tool, but is also a useful standalone resource.

UN Portfolio Impact Analysis Tool for Banks

Last updated: 2021

Tool to help banks and investors holistically understand and manage the actual and potential impacts of their portfolios.

Use this resource to:

  • Set and revise objectives: Banks can use the tool to ensure they set themselves relevant and meaningful objectives. It provides an impact analysis and management workflow that starts from the identification of impact associations and needs, facilitates the collection and assessment of impact performance data, and accordingly enables specific targets to be set and monitored over time.
  • Identify sustainability topics: Use the tool to identify impact areas and topics (economic, environmental and social) associated with a portfolio, based on an objective review (cartography) of the its client, sectoral and geographic breakdown. The tool contains collated research on the association between sectors (ISIC – International Standard Industrial classification) and 22 Impact Areas that cover all the SDGs, as well as a framework to enable a contextualisation of impact associations vis a vis the impact needs present in the country/ies of operation of the bank and its clients.
  • Measure sustainability performance: Use the Indicator Library embedded within the tool to review existing metrics for impact measurement. UNEP FI has collated metrics from reporting standards and frameworks (GRI, SASB, CDP, TCFD), impact investor and development bank resources (IRIS+ and HIPSO), government taxonomies (EU Adaptation and Mitigation Taxonomies) and other sources to support indicator selection and interoperability between frameworks. This indicator library primarily supports use of the tool, but is also a useful standalone resource.

Lists of topic-specific metrics

These resources are similarly based on evidence and multi-stakeholder consultation processes.

GRI Sector Standards

Last updated: n/a

GRI is developing standards for 40 sectors to compliment their current topic standards.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: Use the list of topics listed for each Sector Standard as an input when identifying sustainability topics to measure.
  • Disclose: Report to all stakeholders on ‘material topics’ that reflect the organisation’s most significant impacts. The Sector Standards are a helpful starting point for identifying likely significant impacts.

WBA Benchmark Methodologies

Last updated: 2021

Benchmarks that rank companies based on their impact. The WBA recognises that transformations are needed to achieve sustainability across seven systems. In each of these seven systems, companies that have a big role to play in hindering or advancing progress towards a sustainable future are identified as ‘keystone’ companies. WBA then develops a publicly available methodology for each system (or component of a system), drawing on existing standards to identify relevant topics and associated metrics for companies to disclose against.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: Find the methodology that corresponds best to the ‘system’ that the organisation operates within. WBA’s publicly available benchmark methodologies are developed through detailed research and public consultation, so an organisation can benefit from reviewing the list of topics in the relevant ‘system’ when identifying sustainability topics to measure.

CDP’s Disclosure System

Last updated: 2021

Tool for investors, companies, cities, states and regions to manage their environmental impacts. The CDP Disclosure System supports companies in making their environmental impact transparent to stakeholders, better understanding how they can reduce their impact, and act to become environmental leaders.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: Fill in CDP’s questionnaires to understand the relevant climate change, forests and water security impacts to measure, based on the organization’s size, sector, and geography.
  • Measure sustainability performance: Use CDP’s questionnaires as sets of environmental metrics.
  • Assess impact: Fill in the questionnaires to track change in performance over time. Each question is scored – some with reference to social or ecological thresholds – to help the organisation determine whether it is performing sustainably on that topic.
  • Disclose: Report to all stakeholders on climate change, forests and water security. The questionnaires provide a framework for companies to report environmental information to their stakeholders covering governance and policy, risks and opportunity management, environmental targets and strategy, and scenario analysis. Receive an A-D grading based on questionnaire responses.
  • Benchmark: Tool allows companies to benchmark their environmental performance against their industry peers and receive feedback on their progress each year. The information disclosed is also used by financial markets for stewardship and engagement, in investment research, new financial products, and global indices and ratings.
Last updated: 2021

This report recommends a set of sector-specific, SDG-related metrics by drawing on metrics from existing standard setters and benchmarks.

The Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance (GISD) is a group of 30 large investment firms convened by the United Nations Secretary General. The GISD sits within the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and aims to scale-up long-term finance and investment in sustainable development.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: The report suggests SDGs and related sustainability topics for eight sectors. Organisations can consider their sector and check whether the SDGs and related sustainability topics suggested are applicable to their own business.
  • Measure sustainability performance: The report suggests SDG-related metrics for eight sectors. Organisations can consider measuring the metrics specific to their sector.
  • Disclose: Organisations can include the recommended SDG-related metrics in their disclosure to stakeholders.

UNEP-FI Impact Mappings

Last updated: 2021

The excel-based Impact Mappings are standalone versions of the research embedded in UNEP-FI’s Impact Analysis Tools, split into two parts.

First, the Sector Mappings show the strength of connection between economic activities (using ISIC classification) and positive and negative impacts (using UNEP-FI’s 22 Impact Areas). Second, the Needs Mappings track a selection of indicators at global and country level as a way to estimate the sustainable development needs in different geographies.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: Cross-check the organisations economic activities and geographic location against the Impact Mappings when identifying sustainability topics to measure.

Identifying dependencies that create or erode enterprise value

SASB Materiality Map

A visual and interactive tool to explore SASB’s disclosure topics across its industries and sectors.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: Use the tool to identify the industry-specific disclosure topics and associated metrics. SASB’s research process identifies the subset of environmental, social, and governance issues reasonably likely to materially impact financial performance of the typical company in an industry.

SASB Standards

Last updated: n/a

Reporting standards that provide industry-specific disclosure topics and associated metrics that measure performance against 26 General Issue Categories (or sustainability topics). Management or mismanagement of performance on these sustainability topics may create, preserve or erode value for the typical company in a given industry over time.

Use this resource to:

  • Identify sustainability topics: Identify the relevant industry standard to find industry-specific topics and accounting metrics. These standards can be a useful input when identifying which sustainability topics to disclose.
  • Measure sustainability performance: Identify metrics from the standards. The standards themselves provide guidance on selecting metrics to report. Using standardised metrics helps the organisation and its stakeholders compare performance with others.
  • Estimate value created: SASB evaluates sustainability topics for inclusion in the Standards by assessing whether a given topic is reasonably likely to materially affect the financial condition, operating performance, or risk profile of a typical company within an industry. Collecting information on these metrics provides insight that can inform estimation of value to the organisation.
  • Disclose: Report to providers of financial capital on sustainability topics that are likely to affect how value is created, sustained or eroded for the organisation over the short-, medium-, and long-term.

Natural Capital Protocol

Last updated: 2016

Guidance that outlines a process organisations should follow to identify, measure and value their impacts and dependencies on the natural environment.

Use this resource to:

  • Set and revise objectives: Use the guidance on how to identify and engage with stakeholders in order to set objectives for a natural capital assessment.
  • Identify sustainability topics: Use the guidance on how to map the links between significant impacts and the business activities that affect or rely on them. This process helps organisations determine whether each impacted stakeholder is likely to affect their business model (and therefore enterprise value).
  • Estimate value created: Use the guidance to value impacts and dependencies on natural capital. This methodology draws on organisational data, data collected from stakeholders and publicly available country- or sector-level data.

Social and Human Capital Protocol

Last updated: 2019

Guidance that outlines a process for organisations to follow so they can identify, measure and value their impacts and dependencies on social and human capital.

Use this resource to:

  • Set and revise objectives: Use the guidance on how to identify and engage with stakeholders in order to set objectives for a social and human capital based assessment.
  • Identify sustainability topics: Use the guidance to map the links between significant impacts and the business activities that affect or rely on them. This process helps the organisation determine whether each impacted stakeholder is likely to affect the business model (and therefore enterprise value).
  • Estimate value created: Use the guidance to value impacts and dependencies on social and human capital. This methodology draws on organisational data, data collected from stakeholders and publicly available country- or sector-level data.

Definitions

Dependencies

When an organisation’s impacts, or changes in the external environment in which it operates, affect an organisation’s cash flows, or future cash flows, and therefore create or erode investors’ determination of its enterprise value.

Source: Value Reporting Foundation (VRF)

Enterprise value

Market capitalisation (shareholder value) plus the market value of net debt. It is determined by capital market participants based on their estimation of the present value of expected cash flows spanning the short-, medium-, and long-term. Essential inputs in determining enterprise value include corporate reporting in financial statements, as well as reporting on sustainability matters that it is reasonably possible will positively or negatively affect the company’s cash flows over time (i.e. affecting revenue, costs, assets, liabilities, cost of capital and/or risk profile). The term is widely used and is technically specific in capturing the notion of expected value creation/preservation/erosion over time for a company’s equity and debt investors. This expected value creation/preservation/erosion is fundamentally interdependent with a company’s creation/preservation erosion of value for its other stakeholders.

Source: Value Reporting Foundation (VRF)

Impact

A change in an aspect of people’s well-being or the condition of the natural environment caused by an organisation.

Source: Impact Management Platform; Well-being defined as in OECD Well-being Framework

Metrics

A standard of measurement. The words ‘metric’ and ‘indicator’ are typically used interchangeably. Metrics are used to measure the state of something at a point in time. Repeated measurement makes it possible to determine change over time.

Source: Adapted from Meriam Webster Online Dictionary

Outcome

The resulting level of well-being experienced by a group of people, or the condition of the natural environment.

Practitioners should be aware that some available standards and guidance (e.g. OECD, IFC, Capitals Coalition) define outcome as a change in-, rather than a level of-, well-being. Whilst collecting data about performance over time usually involves measuring the level (e.g. wage paid in prior period relative to wage paid in current period), it is not always the case that this data is disaggregated for decision-making (e.g. if management or the board of a company are only provided with a figure about the change, such as ‘percentage increase in wages paid’). Using information about the change alone prevents comparison of performance against a social or ecological threshold, and therefore determination of whether the level of performance is ‘sustainable’ or ‘unsustainable’.

Additionally, if an outcome is defined as a broad aspect of well-being (e.g. ‘health’) it may be too general to inform which metric should be used. To help with accurate measurement, a well-defined outcome is needed. See Glossary term Well-defined outcome.

Source: Impact Management Platform

Significant

An impact is significant if the change in well-being (or the condition of the natural environment) caused by the organisation is big and/or occurs for many people, lasts for a long time and is important to those affected. See Assess Impact for information on collecting these data points..

Source: Social Value International (SVI)

Stakeholder

An entity or individual that can reasonably be expected to be significantly affected by the organisation’s activities, products and services, or whose actions can reasonably be expected to affect the ability of the organisation to successfully implement its strategies and achieve its objectives.

Source: Global Reporting Initiative (GRI); OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct; OECD Well-being Framework; Value Reporting Foundation (VRF) Integrated Reporting Framework

Sustainability topic

A term used broadly to denote aspects of stakeholder well-being (e.g. health, wealth, safety), or business activities or practices that are evidenced drivers of well-being (e.g. employment, diversity and inclusion). This term is synonymous with ‘sustainability matters’, ‘impact areas’, ‘impact categories’ or ‘general issue categories’ which are similar terms used by different standard setters.

Source: OECD Well-being Framework; Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Sustainability Topics; Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) General Issue Categories; IRIS+ Categories; United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) Impact Areas

Value to the organisation

How an organisation’s stakeholders, along with changes in the external environment in which the organisation operates, affect the amount and timing of the entities cash flows, including in the long-term.

Source: Value Reporting Foundation (VRF)

Value to society

The relative importance, worth or usefulness of impacts to the people who experience them, expressed in a common unit of value. Impacts can be experienced by people directly, or through changes to the planet or the economy. Also known as impact valuation.

Source: Consensus definition based on discussions with Capitals Coalition; Impact Weighted Accounts Initiative (IWAI); Social Value International (SVI); and Value Balancing Alliance

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