How to communicate your sustainability report

How much does your company spend on its glossy, Sustainability or CSR report each year? Does it really help you connect with your community or is it merely nice sustainability window dressing?

That’s not to belittle the Sustainability Report as an important resource. It helps document and quantify sustainability activity within the organisation and it allows the company to satisfy its compliance with sustainability reporting standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). Starting in 2016, sustainability reporting took on even more importance when new EU laws came into force requiring most mid-sized and large companies to report on non-financial issues including environmental issues, social and employee aspects of the business, respect for human rights, anti-corruption and bribery issues and diversity in their board of directors. The first report from these companies was due in 2018.

Most Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies have been reporting on non-financial issues for at least the last 10 years. Over that period the report, and the type of issues disclosed, has changed dramatically as companies have shifted their focus from corporate social responsibility to sustainability issues that are core to business performance. And yet, very few companies integrate both their financial and non-financial (sustainability) reporting into one document – so helping sustainability resonate and make sense for shareholders. Even fewer integrate sustainability metrics into their financial reporting.

Financial services companies have to do a better job of understanding and demonstrating the business value of environmental and social action. All too often, the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Sustainability Officer attend the same board meetings but work in isolation.

As issues like climate change, resource scarcity, transparent supply chains and equality within the workforce have an ever bigger impact on companies’ bottom line so sustainability reporting will also grow in importance for companies as they seek to show that they are running successful and responsible operations. The pressure for better sustainability reporting will come from many stakeholders, including employees, shareholders, the media and the general public, and it will be propelled by new commitments that companies have pledged to meet – the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals being particularly prominent.

In this environment where understanding and acting on sustainability pressures will be key for business performance, legal compliance and corporate reputation, the role of communicating sustainability reporting is going to be crucial.

For the last decade most sustainability reports have been published as a glossy print publication and distributed online as a PDF download or sometimes as an interactive microsite. These niche publications costs hundreds of thousands of dollars/pounds/euros to produce only to languish under the desks of the stakeholders who receive them or be balkanised in the farthest recesses of a company’s website. Simply put, the sustainability report, in its current form, is not doing justice to the time, effort and money being put into it.

Admittedly, sustainability reports in their current form, tend to be focused on a very small niche of very important stakeholders, including shareholders, NGOs, the media and some employees. The mass general public has never been the target audience. But that doesn’t mean the information being collected and reported isn’t of interest and value to a wider audience.

Social media has both accelerated the public’s interest in corporate sustainability and given companies an easily accessible to inform the public about what they are doing to be more sustainable.

That means corporate communicators and marketers have to be more creative, useful and transparent in the way they impart sustainability information. And that’s where smart corporate reports come in.

For too many companies the annual Sustainability Report is the pinnacle of their sustainability communications each year when it should be just the starting point – the launch pad even – for a sustainability conversation with the investors, NGOs, the media, employees and, yes, the public.

This is an opportunity lost because the information that sits within all sustainability reports is a potential goldmine for interacting with real people and demonstrating to them what many still have a hard time believing – namely that companies are making concrete efforts to make their operations sustainable and to make products and services that put the needs of the consumers first.

Rather than looking at sustainability reports as the dull but worthy end result of a lengthy research process companies should consider their reports as the raw materials for great storytelling. Take that environmental, social and governance data and repackage it to meet the interests and needs of non-sustainability experts. Evaluate all the feedback about the company’s social commitments and create real human stories. Overall, analyse the hard data and anecdotal evidence that has been compiled and use it in more creative, engaging ways to demonstrate the company’s commitment and authenticity.

This is an excerpt from Trust Inc. How Business Gains Respect in a Social Media Age by Matthew Yeomans.