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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!

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