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Speaking Sustainably

Icebreaker's sustainability report sets the new standard to follow

This merino wool company raises the bar without spin or stock photos, revealing every link in its supply chain.

Corporate sustainability reporting is almost de rigueur. According to the Governance & Accountability Institute, the number of S&P 500 companies issuing sustainability reports has grown from just 20 percent in 2011 to 82 percent in 2016. That’s quite a trend, and quite a good thing, for the companies and their stakeholders — but only if they do it right.

How can you ensure your sustainability report is a good thing for your company?

Many look at the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework as the gold standard for reporting in the private sector. It is not a quick or easy framework to use — but then again, no effective sustainability report is quick or easy. You have to set goals in all the expected categories: energy; waste; water; and so forth. You have to establish metrics and track your progress against those goals, then write, design and publish your report.

And finally, to fully reap the benefits of reporting, people have to actually read it. That means that on top of being detailed and comprehensive, the report needs a style and voice that make it attractive and engaging — something the reader wants to read. Those kinds of reports have been very hard to come by. But we’ve found one.

A new gold standard

Icebreaker, a maker of high-performance merino wool clothing, released its first "sustainability report" recently — and, in our opinion, in doing so, set a new gold standard. The first thing to note is that Icebreaker does not call it a sustainability report. It calls it Made Different and refer to it as a Transparency Report. The title could not be more apt. The company, its clothing and its report are all made different — and exceedingly well — and the report is all about being transparent.

It’s beautiful. Full of breathtaking (and relevant) images of New Zealand landscapes and artful portraits of sheep, the ranches where they’re raised and real Icebreaker people — not a stock photo in sight. It’s written and designed in a way equally suited to serious, cover-to-cover reading and to skimming, browsing and coming back to later. There are no dizzying displays of icons and infographics, no pages that leave your eyes wondering where to start, just a crisp, attractive layout of copy and clear, easily digestible tables and charts.

It is also comprehensive. Made Different may not strictly follow the GRI Standards, but it covers each of the three areas the GRI wants addressed — social, environmental and economic — and devotes considerable attention to animal welfare. It tells the compelling story of the company’s formation, its principles and how it has evolved, then delves deeply into its Growers and Fiber, Products, Supply Chain and People. And I mean deeply. It directly addresses every grower, every link in the supply chain and all of the people involved, from ranch owners to factory workers to retail employees. But even though it’s deep, it’s so well written, it’s a pleasure to read.

The report’s voice is humble — a key factor in its believability, which in turn is what makes it so effective. It acknowledges the company’s responsibility to the sheep and growers producing the fiber it uses, to Icebreaker employees and to workers throughout its supply chain. While the narrative paints a clear picture of a company doing the right things in the right way, it does not feel sugarcoated or spun.

This is a warts-and-all report. It does not hesitate to address issues and less-than-ideal situations. While it conveys a sense of pride in having been a leader in some areas, it acknowledges missteps and areas that need improvement, and clearly lays out the measures it is taking to right the wrongs.

If your organization is among the 82 percent of S&P 500 companies publishing an annual sustainability report, take a look at Icebreaker’s Transparency Report. And borrow its approach. I’m not sure there’s a better model out there.

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