By Ellie Winninghoff

What do Sweden's state-owned enterprises have in common with companies listed on the Johannesburg stock exchange?

They share a requirement for the mandatory disclosure of sustainability factors such as carbon emissions or the percentage of significant suppliers and other business partners that have undergone human rights screening.

Sweden's companies must publish reports that comply with guidelines issued by the Amsterdam-based Global Reporting Initiative, or GRI. The GRI has emerged as the de-facto standard for environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting.

And companies in South Africa must issue "integrated reports" that include information related to ESG issues as well as financial data.

Welcome to the fast-changing world of sustainability reporting-one that could culminate in nothing less than the total transformation of how companies report performance in the 21st century.

This will be a three-part series. Part one will trace the trajectory of the GRI, a multi-stakeholder-based, consensus-seeking global institution that has developed and continues to refine frameworks and guidelines for ESG reporting.

Despite its usefulness, ESG data--like the rest of the data collected by the investment industry--has become its own separate silo, unconnected to the whole. Ultimately, the idea is to help corporations, as well as investors and other stakeholders, to connect the dots between a company's ultimate strategy and various ESG and financial issues.   

Part two will discuss some of the tricky issues related to verification/assurance by accounting firms and others of the information contained in corporate sustainability reports.

And part three will look at efforts to create "integrated reports" designed to help investors analyze a company's strategy and connect the dots between the complex and inter-related environmental, social, governance and financial issues that determine a company's success. The players here range from Prince Charles and the Financial Accounting Standards Board to the GRI and Harvard University.