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29 Aug 2022

Danish Institute for Human Rights

Danish Institute paper explores what 'big data' analysis of sustainability reporting can say about corporate respect for human rights

'Sustainability reporting and human rights', 23 August 2022

This discussion paper describes the outcomes of a project developed by the Danish Institute for Human Rights which aimed to use algorithm assisted analysis of a large number of company reports maintained in the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Sustainability Disclosure Database against a set of human rights indicators to supplement qualitative analysis of company reporting. The paper sets out the methodology used, the challenges and limitations encountered and a summary of what we were able to see in the data in response to a series of hypotheses.

The paper highlights a number of challenges faced in using such big data technology on company sustainability reports, including:

  1. Accessibility of reports: the project encountered constraints on the ability to download reports from the GRI database, highlighting the need for a central repository of reports to be easily accessible in machine readable format;
  2. Format and presentation of data: the project noted considerable variation in the presentation of data on human rights issues in current company reporting presents difficulties when attempting to assess and compare reporting practice: potentially relevant information is contained in a range of formats, including tables or text boxes in picture format, which is challenging to convert into a machine-readable format;
  3. Lack of a common set of standards: corporate sustainability reports use a variety of different standards as a point of departure, and even those within the database which all used the GRI Standards often adopted a narrative or visual style to communicate information, leading to a lack of standardisation of reporting; and
  4. Limitations of the algorithm: there is a clear need to acknowledge the limits of what this kind of algorithm assisted analysis can tell us about the data, in that it cannot assess the quality of reporting, only whether text is relevant to an indicator.

The discussion paper highlights the need for a common set of standards and a central repository of reports in machine readable format in order to facilitate future projects using this kind of technology for review of corporate sustainability reporting, and the need for the forthcoming EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive and associated European Sustainability Reporting Standards to address these issues.

[The full discussion paper is available for download above]