A decade ago, publicly-held companies selling securities in the United States simply had to submit an annual 10-K (or 40-F if for non-US firms) to the US government, mail out a slick shareholder report to its shareholders once a year, and if they could be bothered, issue a pretty corporate social responsibility (CSR) report. The CSRs’ quality were all over the spectrum: some were sincere, while others were coy marketing presentations that often crossed the line into greenwashing. But now, companies like Google are taking a lead by reporting their carbon footprint in their disclosure and financial statements. Meanwhile, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is issuing new advice related to climate change. We should all welcome these developments in corporate governance because the importance—and sincerity—of sustainability reporting will increase.

Corporate officers and directors, long spooked by the US Congress’ passing of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act (which the SEC enforces), will become more serious when disclosing their firms’ environmental liabilities. For potential investors and activist shareholders, they may witness a welcome development where a corporation’s annual report and CSR will be combined into one document.

Since the 1970s, the SEC has addressed environmental issues that were material to a company’s performance, and therefore, stock price. The commission slowly has found itself vetting more firms’ disclosure reports on issues related to pollution and labor practices, particularly within the Management’s Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) section of that 10-K. This became especially true for non-US companies headquartered in nations that ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Then on January 1, 2010, the US Environmental Protection Agency began to require large greenhouse gas emitters to collect and report such data, and the growing confusion of what a company must report has catapulted the SEC into taking even more action.

Three months ago, the SEC issued what they call an interpretive release—guidance to SEC registrants—advising companies on how to disclose matters related to climate change. Broadly, a company should consider disclosing within its annual and quarterly reports the following issues that could affect its operations, and therefore, stock price:

- The effects of climate change-related legislation and regulation.
- Any impact of international accords or treaties focused on climate change.
- Business or regulatory trends affecting a firm’s business, such as an increased demand for energy from alternative sources.
- Significant impacts of climate change (such as hurricanes—88% of all property losses that US insurers paid between 1980 and 2005 were climate-related).

Enough legal-ese, you are probably thinking by now! So what does this all mean? According to Larry Goldenhersh, CEO of Enviance, an environmental ERP software provider, companies will start taking sustainability seriously as central to their operations and viability—not merely an afterthought. True, this means that corporations will discuss the threat of melting polar ice caps and severe drought if such changes have a material threat to their business.

But companies should not just see these disclosure requirements as a negative. Remember: all this information must be disclosed so everyday investors like you and me can decide where we want to invest our hard-earned money. There are opportunities, and not just for solar panel and wind turbine manufacturers. Companies will reveal positive trends in the marketplace as well. Retail chains selling more energy efficient products, engineering firms working on more retrofitting projects, agricultural companies selling more crops for biofuels, and start-ups developing new innovative technologies all have an opportunity to show how and why they are profitable—which means they could gain more investment, giving them opportunities to create more solutions countering the growing threats of climate change, drought, and dwindling energy stocks.

Best of all, for those of us who research companies to gauge if they are really serious about sustainability, the chances of being misled by a slick CSR report will decrease. A company can crow all it wants about how many trees they plant, but when you review that SEC-mandated annual report, you will read how that company pollutes, what they are doing to stay compliant with environmental regulations, and how technologies in which they are investing can create a cleaner, greener, future.

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. Based in California, he is a business writer and consultant. His work is has also appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He's pictured here in Qatar, one of the Middle East countries in which he takes a keen interest because of its transformation into a post-oil economy. Other areas of interest include sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). As of October 2013, he now lives and works in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.