Effective sustainability reporting

Rob Pearson - April 2, 2019

Since I began working with sustainability reporting over 10 years ago, the landscape has changed remarkably. Like many aspects of media today, thirst for information and data, the speed of communication and the sheer number of channels available to convey messages and engage has grown almost out of all comprehension. Set in the wider context of global sustainability challenges that fill our news feeds, from plastics to gender equality, climate change to modern slavery, the expectations on companies to make their position clear has never been greater.

What are the five challenges to overcome in order to create meaningful and impactful sustainability communications?  

  1. Demonstrate a robust materiality process

The critical step to determine what your stakeholders want to see you respond to, yet it shouldn’t be a one-time exercise done at the start of drafting a sustainability report (as some companies still do). Materiality, the process of identifying and prioritising the issues most prevalent for your business, should be an integral part of your sustainability strategy, which in turn supports sustainability reporting, ensuring you are communicating your response to issues most relevant to your stakeholders. Disclose your materiality process in your reporting, bearing in mind your target audience - a materiality matrix and other terminology may not be the most effective way to communicate to a less technical audience.

For more thoughts on materiality, see Materiality - beyond reporting.

 2. Don’t ignore the wider sustainability context

Most companies identify top material issues which are also wider societal issues. Climate change, water use, gender equality for example. Yet many continue to miss the opportunity to briefly explain these issues on a global level and set the companies approach against the wider context of sustainability. Doing so makes for such a more engaging report. I like the way UPM, in their 2018 Annual Report, set out a brief description of the significance of each section of the society and environment section of the report. SDGs are useful here too, presenting the opportunity to link your impacts and commitments with the wider context of societal needs through the Global Goals.  

 3. Avoid a tick box exercise

 Sustainability reporting frameworks are a useful to guide the reporting process and encourage consistency amongst reporters, but don’t let these influence the objective of your communications. A report that ticks all the boxes of a framework is not necessarily a good report if it is hard to read, too long, poorly designed and written with the wrong audience in mind.

 4. Balance the message

 I am immediately suspicious of any sustainability report that doesn’t mention challenges faced or targets missed. Discussing these transparently adds credibility to your reporting and demonstrates a real commitment towards sustainability.

 5. Audience

Consider your target audience from the outset. Are you aiming to engage investors, employees, customers, local communities, NGOs’ or suppliers? Some more than others?

Remember that a one-size-fits-all approach might not be appropriate. The most effective way to overcome this challenge is to create core communication material which has broad appeal (through your annual Sustainability Report for example), then adapt this in smaller bitesize pieces with a specific communications objective or stakeholder audience in mind. Many companies miss this opportunity, failing to leverage the communications material that they invested in developing.

If you need help in identifying and responding to these challenges and opportunities, or would like Challenge Sustainability to review your current sustainability communications, please get in touch.