10 lessons for sustainability reporting newbies

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Why should you care about corporate sustainability reporting, and how can you do it well? Marina Goodyear reports back from last week’s Ethical Corporation’s Sustainability Reporting Conference

Since joining Bioregional in spring 2017 I’ve been involved in sustainability reporting for several of our partners, including businesses and charities. While very familiar with social and environmental issues after recently completing a sustainable development MSc, business sustainability reporting is a world I’m still pretty new to.

So, I’ve been rapidly getting up to speed on how and why businesses can and must engage with environmental, social and governance issues.

I was delighted, therefore, to accept a spare ticket to Ethical Corporation’s Sustainability Reporting Conference 2017 last week from one of our partners. I wanted to gain real-life insight from businesses on why they are reporting on social and environmental responsibility and how they are going about it.

Of course, many companies are familiar with why you should do corporate responsibility, recognising that it will save money through efficiency, reduce risks, motivate employees, attract ethical investors, and open up new product or service opportunities for your business.

But just as important as ‘doing’ is reporting on your performance, which forms the outward demonstration of these actions as well as your own means of taking a critical look at yourself. But how do you report, why bother and who’s reading it?

More experienced corporate sustainability experts will be familiar with these, but for those of us still learning these are the ten key points I took away from the conference:

1.Companies need to critically examine how they can acquire legitimacy in society: how they generate social value and gain a social licence to operate. The sustainability reporting process is part of the way to ‘do’ that self-examination, as well as communicating it externally (Insight from Yorkshire Water, a private water company which recognises that delivers a very public service).

2. Don’t do a report for the sake of a report. It should drive changes and improvements. The same is true about collecting data – what do you want that data to achieve or change? (This was a message throughout). At the same time, get started now rather than waiting to develop 100% perfect datasets and metrics (insight from ING Bank).

3. Companies need to move beyond B2B (business to business) or B2C (business to customer) and move towards a model of B2S: business to society. This is how you can best target your strategy in the long run (insight from Markus Strangmüller at Siemens).

4. Ethical investors are still investors and would rather see sustainability woven into the main company report (integrated reporting) instead of a standalone sustainability report. Investors want to see how sustainability impacts on the general viability of the business itself. Investors are unlikely to read an extra document that just looks at ‘sustainability’ on its own. However, the standalone sustainability report can be the first step on the journey towards integrated reporting later on.

5. Opinion is divided regarding online ‘reporting’ platforms with bells and whistles, avoiding the traditional PDF document. People inside the company tend to really like this idea as they think the PDF is boring and they want to constantly innovate. But investors prefer the hard PDF. Nobody seems 100% sure about what the public prefers. 

6. For public or customer engagement, ongoing consistent sustainability messages are important, not just the single annual review.

7. For your sustainability reporting/data to drive change in the business, you need to speak the language of the C-suite, not preach to the converted. This often needs to involve converting EVERYTHING into a monetary equivalent, as icky as that may feel to those of us who think that things like biodiversity are valuable in themselves!

8. Report on the targets you didn’t hit and progress you didn’t make, for the sake of transparency (especially for interactive online platforms). People may write-off your whole reporting process as a PR exercise if you’re not open and honest about where you fell down on meeting your ambitions.

9. In sustainability comms, inauthenticity creates the biggest reputational risks – remember that Pepsi protest ad, anyone? (Insight from Connected Pictures). Therefore, communicate on what you really care about. Start by caring about it. The reporting process can help you identify where that value is.

10. The Sustainable Development Goals are not just for governments, NGOs and community groups: Businesses want in. This was confirmed not only by representatives from three major reporting platforms – the GRI, IIRC and CDP – but also just about every company representative who presented. There is a scramble to work out how the SDGs relate mutually to each business, but some are more relevant than others – so materiality is key.

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