Organizations are faced with a wide range of topics on which they could report. Relevant topics are those that may reasonably be considered important for reflecting the organization’s economic, environmental and social impacts, or influencing the decisions of stakeholders, and, therefore, potentially merit inclusion in the report. Materiality is the threshold at which Aspects become sufficiently important that they should be reported. Beyond this threshold, not all material Aspects are of equal importance and the emphasis within a report should reflect the relative priority of these material Aspects.
In financial reporting, materiality is commonly thought of as a threshold for influencing the economic decisions of those using an organization’s financial statements, investors in particular. The concept of a threshold is also important in sustainability reporting, but it is concerned with a wider range of impacts and stakeholders. Materiality for sustainability reporting is not limited only to those Aspects that have a significant financial impact on the organization.
Determining materiality for a sustainability report also includes considering economic, environmental and social impacts that cross a threshold in affecting the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. These material Aspects often have a significant financial impact in the short term or long term on an organization. They are therefore also relevant for stakeholders who focus strictly on the financial condition of an organization.
A combination of internal and external factors should be used to determine whether an Aspect is material, including factors such as the organization’s overall mission and competitive strategy, concerns expressed directly by stakeholders, broader social expectations, and the organization’s influence on upstream (such as supply chain) and downstream (such as customers) entities. Assessments of materiality should also take into account the basic expectations expressed in the international standards and agreements with which the organization is expected to comply.
These internal and external factors should be considered when evaluating the importance of information for reflecting significant economic, environmental and social impacts, or stakeholder decision making. A range of established methodologies may be used to assess the significance of impacts. In general, ‘significant impacts’ refer to those that are a subject of established concern for expert communities, or that have been identified using established tools such as impact assessment methodologies or life cycle assessments. Impacts that are considered important enough to require active management or engagement by the organization are likely to be considered to be significant.
The report should emphasize information on performance regarding the most material Aspects. Other relevant topics can be included, but should be given less prominence in the report. The process by which the relative priority of Aspects was determined should be explained.
In addition to guiding the selection of Aspects to report, the Materiality Principle also applies to the use of Indicators. When disclosing performance data, there are varying degrees of comprehensiveness and detail that could be provided in a report. Overall, decisions on how to report data should be guided by the importance of the information for assessing the performance of the organization, and facilitating appropriate comparisons.
Reporting on material Aspects may involve disclosing information used by external stakeholders that differs from the information used internally for day-to-day management purposes. However, such information does indeed belong in a report, where it may inform assessments or decision-making by stakeholders, or support engagement with stakeholders that may result in actions that significantly influence performance or address key topics of stakeholder concern.
In defining material Aspects, the organization takes into account the following factors:
- Reasonably estimable sustainability impacts, risks, or opportunities (such as global warming, HIV-AIDS, poverty) identified through sound investigation by people with recognized expertise, or by expert bodies with recognized credentials in the field
- Main sustainability interests and topics, and Indicators raised by stakeholders (such as vulnerable groups within local communities, civil society)
- The main topics and future challenges for the sector reported by peers and competitors
- Relevant laws, regulations, international agreements, or voluntary agreements with strategic significance to the organization and its stakeholders
- Key organizational values, policies, strategies, operational management systems, goals, and targets
- The interests and expectations of stakeholders specifically invested in the success of the organization (such as employees, shareholders, and suppliers)
- Significant risks to the organization
- Critical factors for enabling organizational success
- The core competencies of the organization and the manner in which they may or could contribute to sustainable development
- The report prioritizes material Aspects and Indicators