Value from sustainability report assurance

Jon Woodhead - January 24, 2019

At Challenge Sustainability, our experience of sustainability report assurance stretches back to the development of the first multi-stakeholder assurance standards, some 20 years ago. Over this time, we have signed off hundreds of sustainability assurance statements, and seen the role assurance plays subtly change as the sustainability profession has matured.  

Having worked in two types of roles; as assurance provider or on the other side of the fence, supporting reporting and strategy clients through their assurance process, we have a good feel for what works and what doesn’t. So, what steps can organisations take to ensure you gain the most value out of the assurance process and avoid a time-consuming exercise that adds little to your sustainability approach nor creates credibility with your stakeholders?

  1. Pick the approach that works for your business. There is no ‘one size fits all’, but the main considerations when deciding on the scope of the assurance are the maturity of your business and underlying systems, the size and geographical spread of operations and of course, budget. Remember that if external assurance feels daunting, conducting an initial internal ‘assurance readiness review’ is a credible option as a prerequisite to external assurance.  Stay in control of the process, particularly at the RFP stage - it can be up to you to define the scope and focus of the assurance, not the assurance provider!
  2. Use the assurance team as an extension to your own. For many companies today, the responsibility for sustainability management and data is spread far and wide. Sending an external team into those parts of the business you may be more removed from, gives an opportunity to check what they are doing, but it also helpfully reinforces the point that their role and contribution to the sustainability ambitions of the company are valuable.
  3. Position the assurance team as a critical friend and agree this role from the outset – they are there to provide independent verification, but this should be a constructive process. Open communications throughout is vital from both parties, nothing should come as a surprise when critical report publications deadlines are looming.
  4. Don’t be afraid to push back, if you feel the assurance provider is taking a too deeper dive or concentrating on the wrong areas of your business, outside of the agreed assurance scope, then ask them to explain why. It’s not uncommon, particularly if the assurance provide is using a less experienced team, to see overly detailed reviews and requests for evidence which far exceed the scope of assurance originally agreed. Unless the case is justified then push back.
  5. Finally, take a long-term view. The first year with any assurance provider will be a learning exercise for both parties. From the second year onwards, both are familiar with the ways or working and in many cases, this is where the really insightful recommendations come. With regards to the recommendations made, make sure you consider these carefully and be prepared to demonstrate what changes you have made in response. It really demonstrates a mature approach when you see a company taking into account the recommendations, even better if this is described in the sustainability report.