I recently had the pleasure of participating in the annual workshops of SustainAbility's Engaging Stakeholders network. The theme for the workshops was "value." That is, how companies can derive greater business value from their sustainability communications and engagement, and how they can deliver greater value to stakeholders and society via their efforts.
Across sessions on topics including social impact measurement, ratings, social media and member company "dilemmas," one dominant thread emerged: To create real business value from sustainability, and to have any chance at addressing the daunting challenges which face us, we (i.e. sustainability professionals) must go beyond our comfort zones and do more to engage mainstream audiences and actors in our efforts.
We Have the Foundation...
Sustainability practitioners have done remarkably well in a short time to build strong foundations for their work. Corporate sustainability reporting, virtually non-existent a decade plus ago, is now the norm for global companies (KPMG recently found that 95 percent of the world's largest 250 companies report on their sustainability efforts).
In 2011, most large companies consider the views of a variety of stakeholders in managing their businesses (not just shareholders). Indeed, there are established standards around engagement, and companies are increasingly comfortable opening up to constructive challenge (and many have standing external committees or panels to provide this challenge).
And a number of efforts such as the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment have helped to start the conversation with mainstream audiences (investors in the case of UN PRI).
We should celebrate the foundation we have established, but also acknowledge that we are still largely preaching to the converted. This was abundantly clear when we convened our Engaging Stakeholders member companies and the head of the health care analyst team at a top-tier investment bank in June to discuss sustainability reporting and how it could be made more relevant to her world.
Despite this bank being a thought leader on ESG, this analyst had never seen a sustainability report, nor did she think much of what sample reports contained was relevant to her evaluation of companies and their competitive positioning.
"Preaching to the converted" is also evident in the very limited readership of sustainability reports generally, and the fact most engagement is focused on what we consider the professional stakeholder crowd (e.g. SRIs, NGOs, other sustainability practitioners).