Professor and Advisor Dr. Maximilian Müller on Navigating Sustainability Reporting Challenges

Interview with Dr. Maximilian Müller, Professor at the University of Cologne and Advisor of Sunhat

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Dr. Maximilian Müller
Professor & Advisor

In this interview series, we talk to sustainability heroes about their role and professional expertise around sustainability reporting transformation. We find out all about what drives them in their role, how they deal with sustainability information, and what makes exchanging sustainability data "effective" for them.

Maximilian Müller is a Professor of Financial Accounting at the University of Cologne. Before joining the University of Cologne, he was a faculty member at WHU — Otto Beisheim School of Management and ESMT Berlin and a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago. In 2022, he founded the Sustainability Reporting Navigator, an open-science platform that makes reporting practices, requirements, and stakeholder preferences transparent and comparable. The platform is jointly hosted and developed by Goethe University, the University of Cologne, and LMU Munich. 

Maximilian Müller joined Sunhat as an advisor in February 2024 to support our team with valuable knowledge and contributions regarding sustainability requirements as well as assessment and reporting compliance.

Can you tell us a little bit more about you? What motivated you to join as an advisor at Sunhat, and what specific aspects of Sunhat align with your research interests or goals?

I joined Sunhat because I love how they use technology to ease the reporting burden on companies. There is a trade-off between reporting and action: do you invest resources to fill out the next questionnaire on your carbon footprint, or do you use resources to reduce the carbon footprint? Sunhat allows companies to spend more time on action rather than reporting by simplifying their responding to data requests.

From a research perspective, there is a major black box that my work with Sunhat helps to illuminate: how does the demand for sustainability data look like and differ across stakeholders? Policymakers often claim that stakeholders demand more and better sustainability data, but we have little systematic evidence on their actual demands. Do sustainability data requests by suppliers differ from those of banks in a fundamental way or do they target similar concepts with a slightly different wording?

Mapping out similarities and differences in data requests across stakeholders with the help of AI like Sunhat does allows companies to more efficiently respond to requests - and design data infrastructures and policies that match these requests.

Why do you think many businesses still find managing sustainability requests and sustainability data challenging?

Most requests are still handled on a case-by-case basis — and companies don’t yet have the “big picture” across these requests to see similarities and reap synergies in responding to requests. 

In addition, while much of the relevant data exists somewhere in a company, there is often not yet an infrastructure that would collect these in a similar fashion as ERP systems do for financial data. But even these systems would not yet collect data relating to the value chain, which is often asked for and represents a major challenge for companies. 

Finally, there is clearly also a lack of standardization or convergence in the reporting frameworks and ESG ratings that operationalize the measurement of sustainability in different ways.

In your lectures at the University of Cologne, you touch upon subjects such as the European Sustainability Reporting Standards (ESRS), which are emerging from the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive. How do you see the ESRS contributing to the wider landscape of sustainability requirements?

ESRS is the first mandatory sustainability reporting regulation that standardizes the measurement of datapoints and disclosures for many sustainability topics. This might lead some stakeholders to adapt their requests and lead to some convergence — but we need to bear in mind that it is an EU regulation only and while there is some overlap between the datapoints targeted by ESRS and the ones that for example ESG ratings collect, there are still major differences because sustainability is just such a broad concept

But it is clear that the standardization will create more of a level playing field within the EU — and that will allow for better benchmarking and probably also learning across firms. More comparable and audited sustainability data might also empower policymakers to take other regulatory actions that are more effective than transparency alone in reducing environmental externalities or the abuse of market power.

In your opinion, what role does cutting-edge technology, such as artificial intelligence or data analytics, play in addressing sustainability challenges, and how can software contribute to this?

I hope that technology will help companies become more sustainable. This might be by saving time in reporting or collecting data like Sunhat does — but also by providing companies with a better understanding of their own sustainability, areas for improving it, and their stakeholders’ expectations

Once the sustainability data infrastructure is set up, I also hope that we will see technology being used to trace out how sustainability and financial data relate to each other to identify true KPIs and handle trade-offs between the financial and sustainability dimension more efficiently. 

We can also expect that stakeholders will make more use of technology to analyze the sustainability profile of companies. We are already experimenting with large language models to collect qualitative and quantitative data from sustainability reports with some promising results. If companies understand this and adapt their messaging to these changes, then the message they are sending might be better heard — allowing for a better matching between companies that are sustainable and stakeholders looking to interact with sustainable companies. 

In the more distant future, once we have overcome “language barriers” in the sustainability landscape, we might see automated and authorized information exchange between stakeholders and companies through the use of technologies like blockchain.

Lastly, what practical advice would you give to the many companies or organizations looking to establish robust practices to answer the flood of sustainability requests at this moment?

As a professor, I am a bit reluctant to provide practical advice. But I would say that they should try to synchronize the major “compliance request” they are currently facing, the CSRD mandate to prepare a sustainability statement under ESRS, with the requests that they get through their business interactions with stakeholders. 

The types of topics and data points they are asked for by many of their stakeholders provide the best evidence that an issue is material and warrants reporting. Using Sunhat will help companies greatly to identify these request overlaps across stakeholders and with CSRD and collect only relevant data. 

Thank you for sharing your insightful perspective! 🙏

Want to learn more? Get in touch with our expert team at Sunhat.

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