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How to untangle sustainability reporting strategy

<p>What questions should you ask yourself before others ask about your sustainability reports?</p>

The sustainability reporting profession is being deluged with new guidance about how to go about its job. The International Integrated Reporting Committee (IIRC) just published its “Consultation Draft” for a new integrated reporting framework, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) plans to issue its new G4 sustainability reporting guidelines in May, and the U.S.-focused Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) is rapidly identifying material issues and key performance indicators for publicly listed companies in the United States.

I’m already looking forward to the first integrated GRIIIRCSASB report.  

Seriously, much will be discussed over the coming months about the merits of these efforts and the level of complementarity between them. There should be a good debate, for example, on the different definitions attributed to the word “materiality” by each of these three efforts.

These debates will be important, as they get to the heart of what audiences sustainability reporting is for and what information reports should contain. However, I’d also like to see companies using this unique moment in time as an opportunity to step back, reflect on their overall reporting models and think strategically about where they want to take them.

We work with all types of reporting companies — from the first timers to the old timers — and in almost all of them we witness a desire for longer-term thinking about a company’s sustainability reporting path. But this desire is most obviously apparent immediately after a sustainability report is published, when all the stresses and strains of reporting are fresh in the memory; all too often, time quickly drifts by, the next reporting process soon begins, and suddenly it’s too late for reporting strategy.

This cycle needs to be broken.

This will happen only if companies take time outside the pressures of immediate reporting deadlines to create a three- to five-year reporting strategy setting out where the company wants its reporting to go and how it intends to get there. Among other questions, a company creating its reporting strategy should ask:

  • Who are our target audiences for reporting, and what do they expect?

  • What reporting architecture — financial reporting, integrated reporting or sustainability reporting — makes the most sense for these target audiences?

  • How should reported information be divided between web and print/PDF formats?

  • Which sustainability issues should receive greater transparency over time, and what performance indicators are required for these issues? What do we need to do to prepare our company for this transparency?

  • How should we involve stakeholders in reporting?

  • Can regional, country, site-level or issue-specific reports breathe new life into our sustainability reporting?

  • What is the relationship between reporting and our other communications, such as social media?

  • How can we improve our reporting process to prevent the annual last-minute-sign-off scramble?

With a strategy like this in place, reporting would be less damaged by the immediate need to hit deadlines and benefit considerably from the longer-term thinking that comes with being strategic. But as obvious as this sounds, examples of longer-term thinking in reporting remain rare in a profession fixated on publication deadlines. Now is the time to start, before someone asks about your GRIIIRCSASB report.


This article originally appeared at BSR Insight and is reprinted with permission.

image credit: CC license by angeloangelo / Flickr

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