Ongoing development of the CodeD

The German Sustainability Code was originally developed back in 2010 by the German Council for Sustainable Development in a multi-stakeholder dialogue. Since then, a great deal has changed at both societal and political level, and new national and international guidelines on sustainability reporting have come into effect. The Sustainability Code became part of the political debate and continued to evolve with input from relevant stakeholders. It remains adaptable and over the years has become one of the best-known transparency standards in Germany, with currently over 1,000 corporate users using it to report on their sustainability performance.

How the Sustainability Code has evolved – overview

All companies already obligated to report based on the CSR Directive Implementation Act (CSR-RUG) have also been subject to the requirements of the EU Taxonomy Regulation since 1 January 2022. To ensure that all such companies from both the real and financial sectors can fulfil those requirements, an additional reporting option on the EU taxonomy was added to the Sustainability Code in February 2022.

After two reporting cycles based on the CSR Directive Implementation Act (CSR-RUG), a process of reflection was deemed sensible to identify and leverage any potential for improvement or adjustment.

The two main starting points that were considered in the ongoing development process in 2019 were

  • integrating the United Nations’ SDGs and
  • clarifying the definition of materiality.

Traditionally, the ongoing development of the Sustainability Code has also been influenced by the opinions of both experts and the wider public. As such, a multi-stage process was set up.

The understanding of materiality in the Sustainability Code was specified in more concrete terms in the aspects under criterion 2, guided by the established concept of “double materiality” + stakeholder perspective. The Code therefore still allows for both the business-focused perspective of the CSR Directive Implementation Act and the further-reaching consideration of the impacts of the business activity and the relevance of stakeholder interests.

For the time being, the reporting requirements on the SDGs will not be changed in the Sustainability Code. Users still have the option under criterion 3, Objectives, to disclose whether and how they have based their sustainability goals on the SDGs. Furthermore, companies are still at liberty to establish the relationship to the SDGs in the criteria at a suitable point.

The revision of the aspects of criterion 2, Materiality, was carried out in July 2020. The amendments can be found in the database and on the website. Also since July 2020, the published Code Brochure 2020 now contains an extra chapter on materiality and materiality analysis (only available in German).

Autumn 2018 saw the core elements of human rights due diligence integrated into the Sustainability Code. In addition to the Code content in criterion 17, companies can now, on a voluntary basis, also report the essential content for the German National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights and have it checked by the Sustainability Code Office for formal completeness.

Adopted by the German government at the end of 2016, the National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights (NAPWiMr) – a voluntary agreement – sets out objectives for implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in companies and specifically to improve the human rights situation along supply and value chains worldwide. According to the plan, at least 50 percent of all companies with more than 500 employees should have integrated human rights due diligence into their processes by 2020.

In July 2018 the G4 indicator set was removed from the Sustainability Code database in line with the GRI transition phase. From now on, companies can only report using the GRI SRS (Sustainability Reporting Standards) and EFFAS KPIs for ESG. This entails no further changes to the content. 

In December 2014 the EU Commission passed a  directive that extended financial reporting to include non-financial and diversity-related aspects (2014/95/EU). After the German Bundestag passed the “Act to strengthen non-financial reporting by companies in their management reports and group management reports” (CSR Directive Implementation Act) on 9 March 2017, the Sustainability Code was updated and (with legal support from lawyer Andreas Hecker of Hoffmann, Liebs, Fritsch & Partner Rechtsanwälte mbB) aligned with the newly formulated statutory requirements. To provide concrete guidance for affected companies to fulfil their reporting obligation, passages relating to specific criteria and the Code materials were revised and the Code database modified accordingly. In particular, criterion 2 was revised in line with the definition of materiality laid down in the EU directive and the CSR Directive Implementation Act, and the text of criterion 1 was made more specific in order to clearly differentiate these two criteria from one another. In addition, the four-pronged approach set out in the Act for describing the individual issues (i.e. policy, results of the policies, risks, indicators) was added to the review process and the terminology used for the criteria was brought into line with the Act. Companies can now specify on the database whether they are obligated to report and wish to use their Code declaration as a non-financial declaration as per the CSR-RUG. In this case, the Code Office checks whether both the Code criteria and the legally required content are present and flags up any gaps. The Code Office has designed a special signet to indicate completeness for companies to use in their communications.

Following two years of practical application, the RNE thoroughly reviewed and revised the Sustainability Code in 2014, triggered by the updating of the GRI guidelines from G 3.1 to G 4. The revision also incorporated experiences from practical application, both by companies and by the RNE office: redundancies found in the criteria and performance indicators were removed and the requirements were described more precisely overall. Once again, national and international representatives from business, associations, politics, consulting and academia were invited to discuss the draft.

A digital Sustainability Code database was set up to increase the visibility and comparability of the published declarations and the sustainability information they contained. The project, implemented by the Sustainable Business Institute (SBI), was sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).