Who will pass the sustainability test?

Global warming, the recent financial recession and ongoing poverty have highlighted the enormous need for companies to report the social, financial and environmental impact of their activities—in short, the need for “sustainability reporting”.

This has become an essential part of business in Europe and the United States but South African companies lag far behind. To plug the gap, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), in collaboration with Germany’s University of Oldenburg, is pioneering South African research on sustainability reporting and has launched the country’s first academic course in this field.

NMMU’s computing sciences department, which has been awarded an international grant for the exchange of knowledge between NMMU and the University of Oldenburg, has designed a postgraduate programme on environmental information systems and sustainability reporting. The department is also collaborating with industry to conduct research on sustainability reporting.

Computing sciences lecturer Brenda Scholtz, who initiated the programme in September last year with colleague Professor André Calitz and the University of Oldenburg’s Professor Jorge Marx Gómez, said: “We want to get students educated and aware of this field so they can develop a different kind of mindset. That is why we have introduced it to the curriculum.”

Marx Gómez, author of several books on sustainability reporting, has developed a communications instrument to assist companies to report statistics relating to their social, environmental and financial sustainability. He is confident this technology can be adapted for a South African context.

He said sustainability reporting was still voluntary in Europe but legislation was changing to make it obligatory. Marx Gómez and his postgraduate students have piloted the communications instrument, called Storm, at a number of firms in Germany, including Volkswagen, SAP, the digital photo-finishing company Cewe Colour and a large biochemicals company.

This software tool is customised according to the information needs of different stakeholders and allows them to insert comments or tweet about the information provided.

“We are not just creating a document; we are enabling real dialogue,” said Marx Gómez. “The main idea of the tool is to increase awareness about sustainability reporting. Academia can motivate companies to use it.”

Marx Gómez said stakeholders were becoming increasingly interested in sustainability reporting. “Top levels of the European Commission are researching the changes towards sustainability,” he said.

“Sustainability is also one of the 10 Millennium Development Goals created by the United Nations over the past two years. Companies in Germany are putting pressure on their suppliers—they won’t deal with people who haven’t complied [in terms of sustainability reporting].”

Calitz said: “In South Africa, the King III report requires only listed companies to conduct sustainability reporting.”

But this is a trend Calitz envisages will spread to all companies. “In the future, every country will have sustainability reporting. Before doing business with a company, stakeholders will look at how they report [such information].”

Marx Gómez said the University of Oldenburg dealt with sustainability reporting in an interdisciplinary manner, drawing on the expertise of a number of university departments including physics, the teaching sciences, environmental management systems, sustainable enterprise and management, and the university’s Centre for Environmental and Sustainability Research.

NMMU is planning to follow suit, and will also be the first South African university to implement its own sustainability reporting framework.

Nicky Willemse is a freelance writer contracted by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

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