04.06.2014 | DNK-News

German Sustainability Code under Scrutiny

The Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) is currently updating the German Sustainability Code (GSC), two and a half years after its first introduction. Roughly 60 national and international representatives from business, associations, politics, consultancies, and science gathered at the Deutsche Börse in Eschborn to discuss the draft for updating the transparency instrument. The changes are of an editorial nature to clarify intended content and make the Code more easily applicable. In terms of content, the criteria will remain largely unchanged.

The reason for this update is an amendment of one of the two standards of reference that have been incorporated into the GSC: the Global Reporting Initiative has updated its guidelines from G 3.1 to G 4.

“In terms of the GSC's acceptance, there is still room for improvement,” said Christian Strenger, member of the supervisory board of DWS Investment GmbH and of the German Government Commission on Corporate Governance, in his opening statement. According to Strenger, “Possible measures are, for instance, a greater harmonization of sustainability guidelines in Europe, particularly by the large European core countries (France and UK), the voluntary commitment of businesses to expand the auditor’s certificate, as well as the greater involvement of political decision makers, who have to push for an increase in the declarations of conformity to the GSC by participating firms.”

The first contacts have already been established with other European countries. In autumn last year, the RNE concluded a cooperation agreement with the Greek non-profit organization QualityNet Foundation, with the aim of making the Greek version of the German Sustainability Code known in Greece and the Balkans in general. The GSC has sparked much interest in France as well. “The similarity of the approaches to sustainability reporting in both of our countries provide a solid foundation for enhanced cooperation”, stresses Martin Boekstiegel, representative of the French National Corporate Social Responsibility Platform. “This applies, in particular, to the new European directive and the issue of how we can turn this opportunity into an important landmark in spreading practices of corporate social responsibility throughout Europe.”

A matter of much debate was the question as to the users of the information, the users of the GSC, and its dissemination. “To provide clarity, a “Declaration of Use” should be introduced in addition to the Declaration of Conformity,” suggested Thorsten Pinkepank, director of Corporate Sustainability Relations at BASF SE and head of the econsense project team reporting & rating. “Such a declaration – issued by investors or analysts, for instance – could provide a significant contribution to spreading the GSC since it would underline the added value of the GSC.” Alexander Bassen, member of the RNE and professor at the University of Hamburg, mentioned cooperation with associations as another option for spreading the GSC. As cases in point, he referred to the already concluded agreements between the RNE and the Deutscher Sparkassen- und Giroverband (DSGV; German Savings Banks Association) as well as the GdW Bundesverband deutscher Wohnungs- und Immobilienunternehmen e.V. (Federal Association of Housing and Real Estate Enterprises) and the Arbeitsgemeinschaft großer Wohnungsunternehmen (AGW; Working Committee of Large Housing Companies).

A matter of controversy was the proposed discontinuation of the abbreviated declaration under the GSC. In the view of the Council of Sustainable Development, the abbreviated declaration in its current form contributes little to transparency. Moreover, the highest reporting standard GRI 3.1 A (+), to which the abbreviated declaration is linked, is not identical in content with the new highest standard according to GRI 4 (“in accordance – comprehensive”). Particularly the attending capital market-oriented companies criticized the proposed change since dropping the abbreviated declaration, in their view, would clearly diminish the value of the GSC. Many other participants, by contrast, saw an additional benefit in the GSC above all for small and medium-sized enterprises, because it provides a good means of assisting them in initially coming to grips with sustainability reporting.

“The number of users of sustainability information is on the rise; investors attach ever-greater importance to sustainability. Companies should therefore definitely engage in reporting irrespective of their size,” urged Susana Peñarrubia, Senior Investment Manager of Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management at the end of the event. Prof. Dr. Günther Bachmann, General Secretary of the RNE, added, “This is the starting point for updating the GSC. It is supposed to make reporting easier for companies and the benefits clearer.” He closed the event by announcing that the Council office would incorporate the participants’ suggestions and comments into the draft version by early June. The draft would then be sent to all participants and subsequently submitted to the Council for adoption.

So far, 68 companies have issued a declaration of conformity in accordance with the GSC. This group includes 35 listed companies, 21 publicly owned companies, 11 family-owned or small- and medium-sized companies, and one research institution. The most recent organizations to commit to the GSC are the Berliner Wasserbetriebe (Berlin waterworks), Kreissparkasse Heinsberg (regional savings bank), and the mail-order company memo AG.

Further Information:

GSC database
Pictures of the event