Large companies in the US, UK and Germany have made far slower progress in reporting on social responsibility than on their green credentials, a Scottish research project has found.

The three-year study at the universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen, backed by the Economic and Social Research Council, will this week present some of its findings at an Edinburgh seminar staged by Scottish Business in the Community.

Using a database of 2000 companies split into the US, UK, Germany, and rest of the world, the academics have studied 150 reports on sustainability and CSR from big companies at three time periods most recently 2013.

Dr Kelly Kollman, senior lecturer at Glasgow University's School of Social and Political Sciences, said: "CSR is hard to define and very politically contested," she said. "What is put out seems to be ever-expanding and a moving target.What also makes it controversial is the extent to which it should be voluntary or incorporated into legal mandates."

The research suggested a set of globally-recognised best practices had emerged over the past decade, as typified by the UN Global Compact. Companies were now expected to measure their environmental, social and economic impacts, identify targets for improvement, audit their progress internally, and seek external verification to increase transparency.

"What NGOs and government would particularly like to see is comparable verifiable information from companies," Dr Kollman said. It was hoped this would promote "a collaborative learning process in which companies do mitigate negative impacts and are increasingly able to provide 'public good' where benefits accrue to society more generally".

She admitted that the focus was on large corporations because it was "genuinely more difficult for small and medium-sized firms to have the resources to implement these things”.

Dr Kollman said a major finding was a far lower level of reporting on labour or human rights issues. “Companies are very reluctant to set out and publish target goals in the social area, whereas in the environmental area they have clear, measurable targets to report their progress against. It is starting to change a bit, the financial crisis has refocused firms a bit more towards labour issues, we are starting to see the living wage coming through, but very rarely do you see anyone setting a target for increasing the proportion of employees on the living wage.”

Last week German supermarket chain Lidl stole a march on competitors by promising to pay all its staff the Living Wage rate of £8.20 an hour.

The research has identified progress in several areas: supply chain due diligence, especially for human rights impacts; responsible lobbying, such as the plan for a lobby register at Holyrood; integrated reporting where CSR data appears in annual reports not separately; and co-regulation where governments require better reporting in areas such as employee welfare and gender representation in senior management.

Dr Kollman said this was based on the presumption that CSR performance could be improved through transparency rather than mandatory standards.