How to Produce a Top-Notch Sustainability Report

How to Produce a Top-Notch Sustainability Report

Sustainability reporting is not straightforward. It takes resources to gather information and communicate it appropriately.

Many companies find it daunting to consider which information to communicate, how much, and to whom. Companies that earn the highest ratings for their sustainability communications have discovered several keys to producing a top-notch sustainability report.

In preparing the recent report on "Trends in Sustainability Reporting: A Close-Up Look at Bay Area Companies" (pdf), EcoStrategy Group interviewed a number of the top-performers to find out how they tackled the issue.

Here is their collective wisdom:

1. Gain Management Commitment -- Companies that communicate effectively say that commitment from management is crucial to success. Getting senior management commitment can ensure that resources are available both for implementing sustainability efforts and for reporting about them.

Performance data and qualitative information tends to be dispersed across regions, business units, and functional groups. Gaining commitment at all levels of management facilitates the often challenging task of collecting this information.

2. Understand Your Stakeholders
-- As with any type of communication, a good understanding of the audience informs the nature and form of information you provide. Customers' primary concerns are different from those of investors. Employees may care about different issues than do NGOs.

The companies that do the best job of sustainability communications have identified, mapped, and prioritized their stakeholders. They tailor communications and design their engagement strategy for each stakeholder segment.

3. Benchmark Your Company's Reporting -- Comparing your company's sustainability communications efforts to other companies of similar size or in the same industry can highlight your company's opportunities for leadership as well as its deficiencies. Even more importantly, this information can be among the most convincing arguments for investing resources in sustainability reporting.

4. Articulate the Benefits of Reporting -- Understand and articulate the benefits of reporting. Many of the most common benefits include: managing brand and reputation, competing effectively and staying ahead of future requirements.  There may be others specific to your company situation.

For example, some companies may begin to disclose more of their efforts in order to engage their workforce and attract talent, or to restore their reputations in the wake of embarrassing negative publicity.

5. Create a Reporting Roadmap
-- Reporting, like sustainability programs themselves, is really a work in progress. For that reason, creating a reporting roadmap ensures that you can set achievable goals for the depth and breadth of your communications and that you can maintain and improve your reporting over time, rather than backsliding in subsequent years.

Establishing a regular schedule for report creation, updating and publication can help align resources and set appropriate expectations with both internal and external stakeholder groups.

6. Use Existing Frameworks
-- Many companies have found that it saves time and effort to use accepted existing frameworks, adapting them to the company's specific situation and industry.

Worldwide, the GRI is the most widely used framework for reporting the "triple bottom line" (economic, environmental and social performance). Its G3 guidelines include 30 different indicators of environmental performance. Not all of these are applicable to each company, so experienced sustainability reporters recommend selecting the applicable indicators and using them to help outline your reports.

7. Establish the Facts – Some companies are very willing to tout their accomplishments but can get ahead of themselves by not establishing and verifying the facts beforehand.

Creating baseline measurements of performance (e.g. GHG emissions, waste generation, water use) and then tracking progress in those areas is the best way to create trust, ensure credibility and set expectations. Vet and cross-check your information for quality control.

You can avoid greenwashing and earn the trust of stakeholders by acknowledging that your company is on a journey and has not yet reached its destination but has a plan to get there.

8. Avoid Piecemeal Communications -- Chances are your company is already responding to a number of queries about your environmental impact and efforts.

These may be coming to your investor relations department from socially responsible investors. Questions may be put to your sales team in the form of customer RFPs. Your distribution channel, NGOs, market analysts, the media, and your employees may be the source of other requests for information.

Having a strategy for your sustainability communications can ensure that you avoid sending disparate and potentially conflicting messages to different stakeholders.

Companies that earn the highest ratings for their sustainability communications don't do so by accident. They gain management commitment, put in place a plan for their reporting, and establish good internal processes.

Karen "KJ" Janowski and Kathleen Gilligan are partners in
EcoStrategy Group, a consultancy that helps clients gain competitive advantage through environmental sustainability. The firm specializes in crafting sustainability communications strategies, including the appropriate reporting of quantitative and qualitative efforts and impacts.

Image CC licensed by sxc user piovasco.