The Global ESG Reporting Movement: A Historical Overview

October 20, 2023by Team IRIS CARBON0


In recent years, there has been a significant shift in the way companies report their performance to stakeholders. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting has become a critical tool for businesses worldwide, reflecting a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of corporate success and societal well-being.

ESG is continually becoming a greater factor in a company’s success in attracting, engaging and retaining employees correlating to the demographics of the current workforce. Millennials are now the major demographic representing 34% of today’s workforce, while generation Z consists of 21%. These demographic groups especially value the issues addressed by ESG.

This blog takes a deep dive into the historical evolution of the global ESG reporting movement, tracing its origins, milestones, and its current status as a vital component of modern business practices.

The Birth of ESG Reporting

Environmental Awareness: The early 1970s marked the beginning of environmental consciousness. With growing concerns about pollution, resource depletion, and other environmental issues, companies felt the need to disclose their environmental impact.

Regulatory Initiatives: Legislation such as the National Environmental Policy Act in the United States played a pivotal role in compelling companies to report on their environmental activities and impacts. This marked the first instance of mandatory environmental reporting.

The Emergence of Social Responsibility

Socially responsible investing (SRI): The 1980s saw the rise of SRI, where investors began to consider not only financial returns but also the social and ethical behavior of the companies in which they invested. This shift in investor priorities started to influence corporate behavior and reporting.

South Africa Sullivan Principles: The Sullivan Principles were established as a corporate code of conduct addressing apartheid in South Africa. They highlighted the importance of businesses considering social issues and the need for transparency in reporting on such matters.

The Birth of Modern ESG Reporting

The 1990s saw the emergence of the modern ESG reporting movement. Key milestones during this period included:

  1. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI): Founded in 1997, GRI became one of the most recognized frameworks for sustainability reporting. GRI’s guidelines provided companies with a structured way to report on their economic, environmental, and social impacts. Today, it is widely adopted by companies globally.
  2. The United Nations Global Compact: Launched in 1999, this initiative encouraged businesses to commit to ten principles covering human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption. Companies were expected to provide annual reports detailing their progress, further promoting ESG reporting.

ESG Reporting goes Mainstream

The 2000s witnessed a surge in the adoption of ESG reporting as companies recognized its significance for reputation, risk management, and long-term sustainability. Key developments during this period included:

  1. Integration into Financial Reporting: ESG factors began to be recognized as material for financial performance. In 2009, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued guidance on disclosing climate change-related risks, pushing ESG considerations into mainstream financial reporting.
  2. Standardization Efforts: Organizations like the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) emerged to promote uniform standards for ESG reporting, enhancing comparability between companies.

The 2010s: ESG Reporting Goes GlobaL

The 2010s saw ESG reporting expand beyond traditional Western markets. Some key developments in this decade include:

  1. Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): The Paris Agreement in 2015 and the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals provided a global framework for environmental and social reporting. Companies worldwide began aligning their efforts with these goals.
  2. Mandatory Reporting: Several countries introduced mandatory ESG reporting requirements. For example, the European Union mandated non-financial reporting for large companies in 2017, and China introduced ESG disclosure guidelines in 2019.

The Present and Future of ESG Reporting

Today, ESG reporting has become a fundamental part of corporate strategy. Investors, consumers, and regulators demand greater transparency, forcing companies to take ESG seriously. The task ahead involves increasing standardization, improving data quality, and integrating ESG considerations even further into financial reporting.

Key trends and future developments include:

1.Technology and Data: Advancements in technology and data analytics have significantly impacted ESG reporting, making it more efficient, accurate, and comprehensive.

  • Data Analytics: The use of data analytics tools allows companies to process large volumes of data, identify trends, and measure ESG performance more effectively. For example, tools like Tableau and Power BI are widely used for data visualization and analysis.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): AI and machine learning algorithms are being employed to automate data collection and analysis, helping companies to identify emerging ESG risks and opportunities. ESG data providers like Truvalue Labs use AI to assess company ESG performance.
  • Blockchain: Blockchain technology enhances the transparency and security of ESG data. Companies can use blockchain to create immutable records of their sustainability efforts, providing a higher level of trust.
  • Software Solutions: ESG reporting software frequently incorporates benchmarking functionalities. Notably, solutions such as IRIS CARBON® supports ESG report authoring and enables digital transformation of sustainability data globally using XBRL format, as the first SaaS solution to do so.

2. Stakeholder Engagement: Effective engagement with stakeholders is a critical aspect of ESG reporting. Companies are increasingly recognizing the importance of involving various groups in their ESG strategies.

  • Employees: Engaging employees in ESG initiatives can lead to a more committed workforce. Companies like Patagonia involve employees in environmental and social programs, aligning them with the company’s values.
  • Customers: Engaging with customers allows companies to respond to their concerns and preferences, demonstrating a commitment to responsible business practices. Sustainable brands like Tesla actively engage with their customer base.
  • Local Communities: Collaborating with local communities helps companies understand and mitigate potential ESG risks, build trust, and contribute positively to the areas in which they operate. Companies like Unilever engage with local communities to support sustainable sourcing of raw materials.

3. Regulatory Evolution: The regulatory landscape for ESG reporting is continually evolving. Governments and international bodies are taking steps to standardize and mandate ESG disclosure.

European Union (EU) Directive: The EU has introduced mandatory ESG reporting requirements for large companies. The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) is a notable example of this effort.

Sustainability Standards and Reporting Bodies: Various organizations are working on establishing global sustainability standards. The International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), having absorbed SASB and IIRC, is now the key driver in advancing the convergence of ESG standards on a global level.

UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals are gaining recognition and can potentially lead to more standardized reporting on ESG issues globally.

These trends and future developments in ESG reporting reflect the growing importance of transparency, accountability, and sustainability in modern business practices. As technology evolves, stakeholders become more involved, and regulations become more stringent, companies will continue to adapt and expand their ESG reporting efforts to meet the demands of the changing business landscape.

Current Status

According to Bloomberg data from 2023, the total global investment in ESG funds has reached over $30 Trillion. Investors jumped on board quickly. Governments, investors, and other stakeholders have established several initiatives, including the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), with specific guidelines to ensure that businesses can produce sustainability reports that effectively meet these expectations.

To develop effective corporate sustainability strategies, it is necessary to both identify areas for improvement and to take advantage of an organization’s operational strengths, such as its use of renewable energy sources or the development of cutting-edge products with low carbon footprints. Because of the improved brand reputation among environmentally sensitive consumers, this can assist in lower waste management costs while also enhancing customer loyalty.

Organizations can better guarantee that their sustainability initiatives are in line with international standards by knowing the requirements for ESG reporting. Understanding the value of corporate sustainability and how it affects overall performance is the next step.


The global ESG reporting movement has come a long way since its inception in the 1970s. It has evolved from a niche concept to a mainstream practice, underlining the integral role that ESG factors play in shaping a company’s reputation, risk management, and long-term viability.

In conclusion, the evolving ESG landscape holds critical implications for both businesses and ESG-focused investors. As the demand for high-quality ESG data grows, it’s essential to establish robust data management processes now. This changing landscape offers businesses the opportunity to enhance transparency and demonstrate leadership. As businesses and regulators worldwide continue to recognize the importance of ESG, this movement will likely be instrumental in driving sustainable business practices and contributing to a better future for all.

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