Sustainability Reporting and Assurance: A Focus on Ethics and Independence

 

Demand for timely, accurate, and relevant sustainability information has risen dramatically in recent years. For sustainability reporting to meet the needs of stakeholders in the public interest, the infrastructure that supports sustainability reporting and assurance must be underpinned by high standards of ethical behavior and independence together with a robust system of quality management, oversight and enforcement.

WHAT IS IESBA DOING?

In 2022, recognizing the foundational role of ethics and independence in the production, reporting and assurance of sustainability information, the IESBA committed to taking timely action to develop fit-for-purpose, globally applicable ethics and independence standards as a critical part of the regulatory infrastructure to support transparent, relevant and trustworthy sustainability reporting.

Importantly, this strategic commitment sets up the IESBA’s ethics and independence standards as the third pillar to trustworthy sustainability reporting and assurance, alongside the standards being developed by the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) and the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB). 

 
 

The IESBA December 2022 Sustainability Work Update

IESBA's December 2022 Update on Sustainability provides an overview of the sustainability-related decisions made by the Board at it's December 2022 meeting and how those decisions will shape the Board's work in 2023 and beyond.

On December 2, 2022, the Board unanimously approved two new projects that will deliver the following:

Sustainability Project (Click HERE to visit the project page)

  • Profession-agnostic independence standards for use by all sustainability assurance practitioners
  • Specific ethics provisions relevant to sustainability reporting and assurance 

Experts Project (Click HERE to visit the project page)

  • Specific ethics and independence provisions addressing the use of experts by organizations as well as in the context of audit and assurance engagements (including sustainability assurance) 
 
 

New: Ethics Considerations in Sustainability Reporting: Including Guidance to Address Concerns About Greenwashing

The IESBA is committed to being part of the rapidly progressing developments regarding sustainability reporting and assurance and providing timely responses to ethics and independence-related concerns.

This publication is intended to highlight the relevance and applicability of the Code to several ethics-related challenges arising from professional accountants' involvement in sustainability reporting and assurance, especially circumstances related to misleading or false sustainability information (i.e., "greenwashing").

 
 
How does the existing IESBA Code apply to sustainability reporting and assurance?

The IESBA Code establishes a responsibility for professional accountants to act in the public interest. High quality ethics standards, such as those set out in the IESBA Code, establish the mindset and behavioral characteristics professional accountants must exhibit at all times when they apply financial and sustainability reporting standards. The Code sets out the fundamental principles of ethics for professional accountants, reflecting the profession’s recognition of its public interest responsibility. In addition, the Code provides a conceptual framework to identify, evaluate and address threats to compliance with those principles.

MORE ABOUT THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES

The Code also sets out the independence expectations professional accountants must meet when they are engaged to provide external assurance on information – both financial and non-financial.  

In addition to the fundamental principles and conceptual framework, the following sections of the IESBA Code are of particular relevance to professional accountants in business involved in sustainability reporting:

  • Section 210, Conflicts of Interest
  • Section 220, Preparation and Presentation of Information
  • Section 230, Acting with Sufficient Expertise
  • Section 260, Responding to Non-Compliance with Laws and Regulations
  • Section 270, Pressure to Breach the Fundamental Principles

Professional accountants in public practice who are called upon to help their clients in preparing sustainability-related information are required to comply with Part 3 - Professional Accountants in Public Practice of the Code. 

 
 
 
 

Click here to access the Exploring the IESBA Code publication series to learn more about the topics covered in the parts and sections of the IESBA Code.

 
  Access the Code on e-International Standards  
 
 
 
INDEPENDENCE CONSIDERATIONS

Stakeholders need to trust that auditors and assurance providers are independent of their clients and of management. In addition to complying with the Code’s fundamental principles, professional accountants in public practice are required to comply with the International Independence Standards when performing audits, reviews, or other assurance engagements. This includes sustainability assurance engagements.

To rely on an assurance practitioner’s report, there must be confidence that the firm’s professional judgment was not compromised, and that the practitioner was not influenced in a way that would threaten their integrity, objectivity, or professional skepticism. Auditors of public interest entities (PIE) are subject to additional independence requirements to meet stakeholders’ heightened expectations. 

Financial statement auditors may be called upon to assist or advise their audit clients on sustainability reporting matters. In such circumstances the Code’s non-assurance services (NAS) provisions apply.

 
 
 
 
Broader Issues to be Considered

The IESBA notes that other professionals (not just professional accountants) are involved in preparing, presenting or assuring sustainability-related information. Therefore, as part of a separate workstream, the IESBA is exploring whether, and if so how, the scope of the IESBA Code could be expanded to cover professionals other than professional accountants in relation to sustainability reporting and assurance.

 
 

SUSTAINABILITY STAKEHOLDER QUESTIONNAIRE

Your feedback will help the Sustainability Working Group:

  • Better understand how the Code is being used by those who are involved in reporting and providing assurance on sustainability-related information.
  • Identify the specific activities that professional accountants in business and in public practice (including auditors) are undertaking in relation to sustainability reporting and assurance, with a view to identify and responding to the most pressing ethics (and independence) issues that arise.
  • Inventory stakeholder suggestions about potential areas where the Code could provide more specific requirements and guidance to assist in enhancing public trust in sustainability reporting and assurance.

Please send responses to communications@ethicsboard.org

To view survey questions by category, click below.

 
  Investors, analysts and rating agencies, and other users of sustainability-related information Those charged with governance and preparers of sustainability reports Sustainability assurance providers, including those that are not professional accountants Regulators and audit oversight authorities, including monitoring group members International and national standard-setters, as well as professional accountancy organizations Others, including policy makers, researchers, academics, influencers  
 
 
 
 

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