Sustainable Development Goals
With the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda, the member states of the United Nations reached agreement for the first time on global sustainability goals and the principles laid out in the Agenda. The 17 SDGs and their corresponding 169 sub-goals apply equally to developing, newly industrialised and developed countries. They can therefore offer companies guidance both at home and abroad. Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals occurs primarily at the national level. In Germany, the German Sustainable Development Strategy was adopted to this end in 2017. It incorporates the 17 global Sustainable Development Goals as a political guiding principle and specifies the measures the federal government will to use to implement them within Germany, by way of German foreign and development policy as well as through innovative “made in Germany” solutions. The federal government outlines the measures it intends to implement in various areas of policymaking up to 2030 with respect to specific national sustainable development goals. Of particular interest for companies are the sustainable development goals and indicators relevant for their areas of business and sector as well as the measures for reaching these goals. Only a few goals and indicators have specific relevance for the private sector. Reporting on the corresponding topics is also carried out via a declaration of conformity with the Code (in particular via Code criteria 4, 10, 11–13, 14–17 and supplementary indicators). In individual cases depending on the sector concerned and its prospects for the future, additional sustainable development goals from the German Sustainable Development Strategy may be relevant for companies.
In December 2014, the European Commission passed a Directive that expanded reporting requirements to include non-financial aspects and aspects related to diversity (2014/95/EU). In March 2017, the Directive was made German law by way of the CSR Directive Implementation Act (CSR-RUG). A reporting obligation applies to certain companies and corporations for all reporting years beginning after 31 December 2016. Such companies are required to publish in the context of their management reporting for each financial year a non-financial (consolidated) declaration of conformity (as part of the management report) or a non-financial (consolidated) report (as a separate document) in which information is provided about material non-financial matters. The Sustainability Code may serve as a recognised framework for preparation of the non-financial (consolidated) declaration of conformity or the non-financial (consolidated) report in compliance with CSR-RUG. This entails the policies, risks and relevant performance indicators for the legally stipulated aspects of the environment, labour rights, human rights, social affairs and compliance being reported on. Detailed information regarding the users, review obligations and process recommendations can be found here.
CSR Directive Implementation Act
As part of a voluntary joint commitment, the National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights (NAPWiMr) ratified by the federal government at the end of 2016 formulates goals for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in companies and in particular the improvement of the human rights situation throughout the worldwide supply and value chain. According to the Action Plan, by the year 2020 at least 50% of all companies with over 500 employees are to have integrated human rights due diligence obligations into their processes. Companies can use the declaration of conformity with the Code (in particular criterion 17) to present the processes relevant to their commitment to human rights protection within the meaning of the NAP (see Glossary).
National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights
In April 2016, 175 countries including the United States, China and Germany signed the Paris Agreement as a replacement of the Kyoto Protocol. By signing up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the member states made a binding commitment to limit global warming to significantly less than 2 °C – and if possible to less than 1.5 °C – above its pre-industrialisation level. According to the Paris Agreement, carbon emissions will need to be reduced by 80–95% by 2050 in order for this goal to be achieved. Companies can use the Code criteria 11–13 to report on how they are responding to their responsibility for climate protection by describing there, for example, the goals they have set and measures they have taken to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
The Sustainability Code was developed in 2010 as an international transparency standard of corporate responsibility by the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) in dialogue with representatives from politics, the capital market, the business community and non-governmental organisations. The Council presented the first draft of the Code at the end of 2010 and invited further companies and the public to provide feedback. The Council subsequently received close to 80 comments and discussion contributions. The Code’s development was overseen academically by Prof. Dr Alexander Bassen, member of the German Council for Sustainable Development and Professor of Capital Markets and Management at the University of Hamburg. The contributions, a qualification workshop with companies and the experience derived from a practical test formed the basis for the further development of the draft. At a multi-stakeholder forum held in mid-2011, questions regarding the applicability of the Code and its implementation were discussed. The results then flowed into the RNE’s legislative meeting held in October 2011. The companies’ Code declarations were initially published in PDF form on the RNE website. Since the beginning of 2012, the RNE Office has been organising the Code, working on its further development, drawing attention to it in the public debate and facilitating its use by businesses.
After two years of practical application, the German Council for Sustainable Development reviewed and thoroughly revised the Code in 2014. This revision was triggered by the GRI’s update of its guidelines from G3.1 to G4. The revision also incorporated feedback from the practical experience of both companies and the RNE Office: criteria and performance indicator redundancies were eliminated and the requirements were stipulated more precisely. To this end, national and international representatives of the business community, associations, policymakers, consultants and scientists were invited to discuss the draft again.
A digital Code database was set up in order to improve the visibility and comparability of the published declarations and the sustainability information they contain. Its implementation was backed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) as part of a project by the Sustainable Business Institute (SBI).
After the Bundestag passed the “Act to strengthen non-financial reporting by companies in their management reports and group management reports” (CSR Directive Implementation Act [CSR-RUG]) on 9 March 2017, the Code was updated and (with legal support from Mr Andreas Hecker, a lawyer at Hoffmann, Liebs, Fritsch & Partner Rechtsanwälte mbB) aligned with the newly formulated statutory requirements. Passages relating to specific criteria and the Code materials were revised and the Code database was modified accordingly with a view to providing companies affected by the reporting obligation with concrete guidance on compliance. In particular, criterion 2 was revised in line with the definition of materiality within the EU Directive and CSR-RUG and the text for criterion 1 was clarified in order to clearly differentiate these two criteria from one another. In addition, the “four-pronged approach” stipulated by the Act for describing individual issues (namely: policy, results of the policies, risks, indicators) was taken up in the review process and the terminology used for the criteria was revised to correspond to the Act. Companies can now state in the database whether they are subject to the reporting obligation and want to use their Code declaration as a non-financial declaration as per the CSR-RUG. In this instance, the Code Office assesses it for compliance with the legally stipulated content, in addition to the Code criteria, and points out any gaps. The Code Office has developed a corresponding signet to communicate compliance.
In July 2018, the G4 indicator set was removed from the Code database in line with the GRI transitional period. Going forward, only the GRI SRS (Sustainability Reporting Standards) and EFFAS KPIs for ESG can be reported. This entails no other changes to content.
Additionally, the core elements of human rights due diligence obligations were incorporated into the reporting requirements in autumn 2018. In addition to the content stipulated by criterion 17 of the Sustainability Code, companies can now also voluntarily report on the key content of the National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights and have the Code Office review this for formal completeness.