4 lessons from EY's global sustainability reporting project

Once regarded as a novel idea relegated to green businesses, sustainability reporting has evolved into a best practice that companies around the world employ. At EY, we help clients navigate the process every day. Last year, however, we challenged ourselves to elevate our reporting around the globe.

EY is a professional services organization comprised of member firms around the world. Many produce their own sustainability reports, each with a different look and feel. To capitalize on these separate efforts, strengthen our brand and allow us to showcase the global integration of our member firms, EY launched a project to harmonize the dozens of reports our firms publish worldwide.

More than two dozen of our member firms — all at different stages in their reporting journey — joined the project. For some, it would be their first time generating a sustainability report. So, "success" for us in this initiative was defined as the standardization of content, data and design, and the streamlining of efforts to reduce costs.

To begin, we enlisted our office of sustainability to lead the effort, with support from our client-focused Climate Change and Sustainability Services practice. We also created a working group that included EY personnel from around the globe. Together, we developed a roadmap that drew from the formula that EY Americas used for its inaugural sustainability report, which was recognized as a Best First Time Report in the 2014 Corporate Register’s Reporting Awards.

Next, CCaSS developed a survey that we translated into multiple languages, and distributed to nearly 500 stakeholders to gauge what they deemed to be most important, or material, to our sustainability reporting. Responses came from current and target clients, our people (including senior leaders, new recruits and EY alumni) and our communities (trade associations, suppliers, media and non-profits with which we collaborate.)

Then, the working group provided tools our member firms could use to customize and supplement with their own specific achievements and data. The benefits to our member firms were clear: we could reduce their effort while enhancing the overall quality of their reports.

We knew there would be bumps along this journey, but the end-result was a suite of more consistent and higher quality sustainability reports aligned with Global Reporting Initiative standards. Here are some lessons we learned.

1. Allow vision and strategy to set the course

Our firms are unified under EY’s global initiative Vision 2020, which details our purpose, ambition, strategy and positioning. This was the foundation for our sustainability reporting efforts, enabling us to explain the ways in which we’re supporting our clients, our people and our communities and demonstrating environmental stewardship.

Each firm adhered to widely accepted reporting standards, including GRI and the World Resources Institute/World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol: A Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard. However, Vision 2020 provided a roadmap to help organize and frame the issues each report covered.

2. Engage stakeholders methodically to focus on materiality

Using a standard global approach helped simplify the Stakeholder Engagement process and position us for G4. As noted above, EY’s CCaSS practice created a survey to identify performance indicators relevant to professional services across multiple markets. This also helps us assess materiality. We aggregated the data and developed a materiality matrix that helped us rank GRI performance indicators according to their impacts and stakeholder importance.

By using one survey and timeline, we were able to administer the process centrally and efficiently. The findings produced global and country-specific data, allowing us to analyze the results in multiple ways. The differences between markets were minor, which gave us confidence in our global process.

Of note is that while our member firms collected much of the data at the country level, we extracted some data and stories globally. Having multiple sources helped us validate our disclosures. Member firms then could compare their data to the information collected from global sources.

3. Rethink longstanding practices

Our efforts to coordinate reporting around the globe enhanced our ability to collaborate and share leading practices among member firms. However, design and content were not the only areas of improvement. Through collaboration, we harmonized our methods for tracking costs, and unearthed a number of best practices.

We learned that our member firms had various methods for tracking external costs as well as their internal efforts. By working together, we established a more holistic and consistent tracking method that provided more insights into our total reporting costs and the savings realized from streamlining our efforts globally. On the investment side, our harmonization initiative helped us realize that our collective investment in our communities was greater than previously recognized.

4. Rally internal support

Even with significant support, reporting is challenging. EY’s global sustainability function gave the participating firms a comprehensive set of tools to facilitate their reporting; however, each member firm still had to engage multiple other resources. In addition to our CCaSS practice, our Brand, Marketing and Communications, the talent team, operations and corporate responsibility teams lent their skills to the effort.

Our global reporting initiative has provided greater insight into the impact EY’s corporate social responsibility efforts have had around the world. These revelations ultimately will result in a more unified approach to CSR and support more centralized data collection.

We know reporting is a journey, but we believe we struck a perfect balance between global strength and local empowerment with this initiative. This initial endeavor has made us a stronger, more connected and more confident group of reporters who will make the leap to GRI’s version G4 and to Integrated Reporting with greater ease. 

Top image by Auntie P via Flickr