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The Brutal Truth about Sustainability Reporting

The SSC Team March 5, 2015 Tags: , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

In 2012, Jennifer Woofter wrote an article for CSRwire that we featured on our blog discussing some of the harsh truths about sustainability reporting. We thought this article was worth sharing again! Enjoy:

Last month, Strategic Sustainability Consulting (SSC) released its sixth annual Sustainability Report. That means we have published one report for every year that we've been in business. And once again, as cofounder and President, I was the author.

Committing to write an annual sustainability report is a little bit like spring-cleaning. You try to keep up with it throughout the year, but it's the once-a-year deep clean that really scours all the corners.

Much like spring-cleaning, few organizations eagerly anticipate the sustainability reporting process, and for good reason.

It's a bit of a nightmare.

Analyzing the data -- even with a great data management tool -- is a headache. Waiting for the stragglers to get their information back always takes longer than planned. I'm never happy with the first or second (or sometimes third) versions of the opening Letter from the President. Yet, I do it, and proudly stand by my company's commitment to devote the time and resources to an annual accounting of our sustainability performance. 

If your organization is dreading the approach of your sustainability-reporting season -- or wondering if committing to your first sustainability report is even worth it -- let me offer you a view from the trenches.

Sustainability Reporting: The Good News

Producing an annual sustainability report sends a powerful message to stakeholders about your commitment to environmental and social responsibility. Many companies talk about "going green," but the fact is that only a fraction of those organizations take the time to evaluate their performance and communicate it publicly. Those few, diligent companies get an instant credibility boost that only comes with putting your money where your mouth is.

Moreover, when done correctly, the annual sustainability reporting process can be an incredible strategic tool that helps you assess where the organization is today, determine tangible goals for the future, and chart a roadmap to get there. The steps necessary to producing a robust sustainability report are remarkably similar to developing a sustainability strategy -- so why not combine them and get more bang for your buck?

The Bad

Sustainability reporting is a time consuming process. From my experience in both writing our sustainability reports and helping clients produce their own, the entire process can take anywhere from six weeks to six months. Nothing about a Sustainability Report is simple or quick, from the data gathering to the CEO's Letter.

So make sure to schedule enough time -- and then double that to give you a cushion. I promise that you'll need it.

Equally important: don't listen to those software providers that promise to reduce time spent preparing a sustainability report by 90 percent. Software can make it easier to collect and aggregate data, but it doesn't -- and cannot -- effectively address the areas that take the bulk of the work and time spent: describing programs, identifying challenges, setting goals, wrestling with delicate issues, the seemingly interminable editing and review process, graphic design and publication.

And The Ugly: GRI's 90+ Sustainability Performance Indicators

Even if you collect and report on each of the 90+ sustainability performance indicators listed in the Global Reporting Initiative's (GRI) Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, even if you carefully tally and index every measurement under the sun, it's not going to be enough. What really makes a sustainability report meaningful is its context. 

What do I mean? Let's start with GRI's statement on context:

Information on performance should be placed in context. The underlying question of sustainability reporting is how an organization contributes, or aims to contribute in the future, to the improvement or deterioration of economic, environmental, and social conditions, developments, and trends at the local, regional, or global level.

Reporting only on trends in individual performance (or the efficiency of the organization) will fail to respond to this underlying question. Reports should therefore seek to present performance in relation to broader concepts of sustainability.

In essence, you can't just report on what your organization did. You must also report on what those actions mean in your local community, in your industry, and in the world at large. No longer is it enough to judge the success of environmental and social initiatives using indicators like these:

  • Hours spent training employees (safety)
  • Gallons of water used (resource use)
  • Thousands of dollars donated (philanthropy)

The indicators listed above don't really tell anyone about the effectiveness of a program or its relative impact (positive or negative). Here's another example:

If I told you that a company emitted 3,415 tons of carbon last year, would you be pleased or distraught? The truth is you wouldn't be prepared to venture a reaction unless you had more information. You're missing context. 

Adding The Context to Sustainability Reporting

Figuring out the sustainability context for your organization is one of the toughest challenges for sustainability reporters. I know, because in 2011 my company made it a specific priority. I wrote in the opening pages of the report:

"This year, we’re pushing the boundaries of our sustainability reporting, and sharing how our activities have rippled out into the world. For each of the major reporting sections, we’ll report on the outcomes of our activities.

Not just how many clients we served — but what our consulting helped those clients to achieve. Not just how many webinars we conducted, but who received that training. Not just how many miles we traveled, but what those miles helped us to do."

The Opportunity

I won't lie -- I'm not completely happy with our approach to contextualizing sustainability. I think there are many more opportunities to push deeper and really explore what it means to be a sustainability consulting company -- balancing our own impacts against the services we deliver to clients. Trying to quantify that has turned out to be much harder than I anticipated.

But we've made a start and we'll continue to improve in the coming years. That's the huge opportunity presented by annual sustainability reporting. There's always the chance to expand, to redefine, to recalculate, to re-examine, or to shift your focus as you learn along the way.

Yes, I both dread and anticipate the annual sustainability reporting cycle. The best part, however? Just like that dreaded spring-cleaning, it's that moment when you step back and survey the finished product.

Two of our clients recently published their annual sustainability reports and featured them in our blog. Check out the article here!

A Tale of Two Sustainability Reports – Part 2

The SSC Team February 17, 2015 Tags: , , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

By: Alexandra Kueller

Two weeks ago, we featured an article that highlighted sustainability reports from two of our clients: Chicken of the Sea and PureCircle. Both companies made great strides towards their 2020 sustainability goals and we wanted to feature their achievements.

This week, we wanted to do more of a comparison between the two companies. With both companies operating in the food industry – Chicken of the Sea with canned fish products and PureCircle with stevia – we thought this would be a great opportunity to see how close the companies (and the reports) compare within the same industry!

Chicken of the Sea 

Chicken of the Sea specializes in…

…producing a wide variety of seafood that ranges from frozen to refrigerated to cans, pouches, and cups. While Chicken of the Sea is known for their tuna products, they also produce other seafood items that include oysters, crabmeat, clams, salmon, sardines, shrimp, and more.

Their services relate to sustainability because…

…over-fishing in oceans is becoming a more prominent issue, especially regarding tuna. Chicken of the Sea is doing their best to make sure they are not only responsibly harvesting tuna, but also making sure that their production line is as sustainable as can be. 

These were their sustainability goals:
Chicken of the Sea has five main focus areas for the 2020 goals (against 2012 baseline):

  • Energy – reduce electricity and natural gas use by 20% each
  • Waste – reduce landfill waste by 30%
  • Water – reduce water use by 15%
  • Health & Safety – maintain/reduce safety incidents
  • Supply Chain – audit 90% of seafood procurement spend

 In 2013, Chicken of the Sea saw major strides towards a lot of their goals, but there were three focus areas that really stood out: waste, water, and health & safety. Chicken of the Sea saw a 27.8% reduction in waste, a 12.8% reduction in water use, and a 40% lower incident rate than the previous year, staying on par with their goal.

PureCircle 

PureCircle specializes in…

…producing and innovating the next generation of stevia to be used as sweeteners for the food and beverage industry that help support a natural and healthy lifestyle, such as low and no-calorie sweeteners.

Their services relate to sustainability because…

…even though this is PureCircle’s first sustainability report, sustainability has been engrained in their businesses practices since the beginning. From their operations to their social commitments, PureCircle has made sure to be socially and environmentally responsible by having sustainability policies in place. 

These were their sustainability goals:

On the environmental side, PureCircle has four main 2020 goals (against 2011 baseline):

  • Reduce carbon intensity across the product life cycle by 20%
  • Reduce energy intensity across the product life cycle by 20%
  • Reduce water intensity across the product life cycle by 20%
  • Eliminate waste across farming and processing operations with zero waste to landfill

So far, PureCircle is on course to meet all of their goals, with one goal – energy intensity – already exceeding the original goal by reducing intensity by 42%.

On the social side of PureCircle’s sustainability goals, the company hopes to:

  • Support 100,000 small-scale farmers with sustainable agriculture policies
  • Ensure 100% traceability from gate to individual farm

PureCircle is working and engaging with small-scale farmers on issues such as food security, biodiversity, waste reduction, and fertilizer application to help improve not only the stevia plants, but to enrich the lives of the farmers as well.

Regardless of whether it was the first or third report, what makes both of these sustainability reports strong is the incorporation of a materiality assessment. By completing the assessment, both companies were able to see what is not only what is considered important to the company, but also to their stakeholders, allowing each company to tailor their reports to fit their needs the best.

Curious about how a SSC sustainability report might look like? Check out our previous reports here!

A Tale of Two Sustainability Reports

The SSC Team February 5, 2015 Tags: , , , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments
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By: Alexandra Kueller

Imagine our excitement when we discovered that not one, but two of our clients in the food industry were releasing their sustainability reports on the same day. This got us thinking, How can comparing these two reports help our community? We discovered that the patterns and differences can be translated across industries to help you understand what makes a good sustainability report whether it is your first time or third.

Chicken of the Sea is the nation's leading producer of packaged seafood, producing tuna, salmon, shrimp and more, and they are published their third report. PureCircle is a producer of stevia and natural sweeteners for the global food and beverage market, and they just published their first report.

Below we explore the highlights of the two reports:

Chicken of the Sea

In their third year of reporting, Chicken of the Sea continued to make progress towards their 2020 sustainability goals (2012 baseline). Chicken of the Sea has five main focus areas for their 2020 goals:

  • Energy – reduce electricity and natural gas use by 20% each
  • Waste – reduce landfill waste by 30%
  • Water – reduce water use by 15%
  • Health & Safety – maintain/reduce safety incidents
  • Supply Chain – audit 90% of seafood procurement spend

In 2013, Chicken of the Sea saw major strides towards a lot of their goals, but there were three focus areas that really stood out: waste, water, and health & safety.

Chicken of the Sea made a concerted effort in 2013 to reduce waste that went into the landfill, and it paid off nicely: Chicken of the Sea saw a 27.8% reduction in waste. Not only did the waste focus area see a huge reduction, but so did the water focus area as well. With the goal of 15% reduction, Chicken of the Sea reduced water use by 12.8% by installing new water-saving technology. Finally, Chicken of the Sea saw a 40% lower incident rate than the previous year, staying on par with their goal.

PureCircle

Even though this is PureCircle’s first sustainability report, sustainability has been engrained in their business practices since the beginning. This past year, though, they wanted to increase their transparency. Their first report did an excellent job at outlining their environmental and social commitments, and how those commitments align with their 2020 Sustainability Intensity Goals.

On the environmental side, PureCircle has four main 2020 goals (against 2011 baseline):

  • Reduce carbon intensity across the product life cycle by 20%
  • Reduce energy intensity across the product life cycle by 20%
  • Reduce water intensity across the product life cycle by 20%
  • Eliminate waste across farming and processing operations with zero waste to landfill

So far, PureCircle is on course to meet all of their goals, with one goal (energy intensity) already exceeding the original goal by reducing intensity by 42%.

On the social side of PureCircle’s sustainability goals, the company hopes to:

  • Support 100,000 small-scale farmers with sustainable agriculture policies
  • Ensure 100% traceability from gate to individual farm

PureCircle is working and engaging with small-scale farmers on issues such as food security, biodiversity, waste reduction, and fertilizer application to help improve not only the stevia plants, but to enrich the lives of the farmers as well.

Curious about how a SSC sustainability report might look like? Check out our previous reports here!

How Chipotle Is Giving Consumers Exactly What They Want: Authenticity

The SSC Team January 27, 2015 Tags: , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

By: Alexandra Kueller

Honesty is the best policy, right? According to customers, the answer is yes. Public relations and communications firm Cohn & Wolfe conducted a study on authentic brands by company to see consumers are demanding. In fact, the top three qualities or behaviors that people want to see from big companies are communicating honestly about products and services, not letting customers down, and acting with integrity all times.

Fast Company then asked people in the United States and 11 other major markets what they wish to see from brands, and do you know what was on the bottom of the list? Innovation, great products, and having a popular brand.

Chipotle is taking note of all of these points: the Mexican-food chain recently announced that they will stop serving pork at hundreds of their locations when one of their suppliers violated Chipotle’s standards. So how exactly is Chipotle giving their customers authenticity? They are becoming a great model for big brands in the 21st century:

Embrace Authenticity

Companies often have a set of standards and values they hold themselves (and their suppliers) to, but how are consumers to know if a company follows these values? Brands need to be honest and show they are acting with integrity. With Chipotle announcing that they are cutting one of their main protein toppings from some of their stores, they indicated they are not afraid to show that they uphold their standards.

Transparency for the Modern World

Ever since the economic crash, more people are cynical about corporations’ behavior and motives - only 3% of Americans think big businesses are honest and transparent! Companies can no longer afford to hide behind the curtain with more and more people calling for transparency, and Chipotle knows this and is being honest about their product.

Digital Everything

We live in a digital world. People are always connected, which makes it easier for information to be seen by the masses, and it means that both good and bad information about a company can quickly spread. A company cannot wait and hope a bad piece of information will never go public, but instead they need to embrace the digital side and come forward with the information. While Chipotle’s announcement about no longer serving pork might not be “bad” information, it does indicate that the company is embracing the digital world and is not letting anyone beat them to the punch.

Should more companies follow in Chipotle’s footsteps of providing more transparency and authenticity? Let us know in the comments below and join the conversation on twitter!

4 Reasons Why Corporate Sustainability Reporting Might Be a Waste of Time

The SSC Team January 13, 2015 Tags: , , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

By: Alexandra Kueller

As more companies are publishing annual sustainability reports, some fear that these reports are plateauing, rather than offering more value each year. Some companies are beginning to think that producing reports are not worth the effort or money. In an article published by The Guardian last week, they stated that while sustainability reports do provide useful information, they are not being as effective as they could be.

The article provided an in-depth analysis on a report published by SustainAbility, a think tank and strategic advisory firm, examining what companies can do to help make their reports… well… not as wasteful. Below are four possible ways your company’s sustainability report might be a waste of time:

Heavy Language

No one likes reading an article or a book that is plagued with dense language and phrases, and a sustainability report is no different. All too often, reports are filled with special wording to adhere to reporting standards, or they are bogged down my technical language. While certain key phrases or words are inevitable, don’t have your entire report filled with jargon that no one is going to want to sift through.

Failing to Connect with the Audience

Your company spends countless hours putting in the effort to create a sustainability report, but for who? Who exactly is the audience your company is trying aim their report at? Tying in nicely with the previous point, if your company is structuring the report to be read by customers, but instead reads like a report intended for upper level executives, you aren't going to have readership. Be sure to remind yourself while constructing your report who your intended audience is, and be sure to not lose sight of that.

Confusing Standards and Frameworks

GRI. IIRC. SASB. These are just three examples of some of the many reporting frameworks available to companies. But how is a company supposed to choose and navigate one of these frameworks? They're all different! Should your company go with a compliance-driven approach? Or maybe they should consider a principle-driven approach or a materiality focused take on a global framework. A single framework is exhausting as is, but having so many options might lead to “framework fatigue” and possibly...

Choosing the Wrong Framework

Even if your company does end up choosing a reporting framework, it does not necessarily mean that it will be a good fit for your company. If a company is using a framework that is not best suited for them, their reports could potentially leave out a lot of valuable information. For example, Novo Nordisk recently decided to no longer follow GRI standards and instead take an “integrated reporting” approach, since they determined that would best reflect how they manage their business. 

Be sure to check out our blog post exploring how sustainability reports change over time!