The latest Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) disclosure effectiveness project outreach seeks input on sustainability metrics important to investor decisions. In the SEC’s 340-page Business and Financial Disclosure Required by Regulation S-K: Concept Release (Concept Release), the Commission seeks input from the public about which sustainability metrics are important to investor decisions and why companies often choose to provide sustainability information outside of their public filing. See 81 Fed. Reg. 23,916 (April 22, 2016).

Since the launch of the disclosure effectiveness project in 2013, the SEC has received numerous communications from socially responsible investor groups urging it to use the review of corporate risk disclosures to look at material environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosures. One of the leading independent organizations that issues sustainability accounting standards, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), already issued extensive comments on July 1, 2016 regarding the SEC’s Concept Release.

The key comments provided to the SEC by SASB are as follows:

  1. Today’s reasonable investors use sustainability disclosures;
  2. While Regulation S-K already requires disclosure of material sustainability information, the resulting disclosures are insufficient;
  3. Line-item disclosure requirements are not appropriate for sustainability issues;
  4. To evaluate sustainability performance, an industry lens is needed;
  5. Effective sustainability disclosure requires a market standard; and
  6. The Commission should acknowledge SASB standards as an acceptable disclosure framework for use by companies preparing their SEC filings.

The Concept Release is one of several outreach efforts as part of the SEC’s disclosure effectiveness project. At the heart of the initiative is how to make increasingly lengthy, complicated financial reports more effective, understandable and user-friendly. The Concept Release reviews the Regulation S-K disclosure requirements seeking input on what should be kept, modified, eliminated, or added as well as if the current requirements provide the most efficient and effective means of disclosing this information.

As to ESG issues including sustainability considerations, the SASB comments provide a good historical overview and update on environmental disclosures and the growing trend to provide more detailed ESG and sustainability disclosures to investors and the public at large. In its comments, SASB advocates for the SEC to acknowledge its standards as an acceptable framework for companies to use in their mandatory filings to comply with Regulation S-K in a cost-effective and decision-useful manner. SASB's comments include a quote from former SEC Chair and SASB Board member Elisse Walter, noting “…Disclosure is the foundation of securities laws in the United States and many other nations, and transparency is the engine that propels our capital markets forward. But as the world continues to evolve—and its economies along with it—our disclosure requirements and reporting standards have not always kept pace.”

While the SASB framework would provide more transparency, along with much needed structure and guidance on these disclosures, it seems highly unlikely the SEC will embrace the SASB’s recommendation at this time.