Not another sustainability report…

It’s the season of sustainability and CR reporting and around the world, hundreds of CR Managers are breathing a sigh of relief as their latest masterpieces make it to press. Many of these labours of love will be read cover-to-cover by literally several people…

Is there any other form of literature in which so much effort is put for the benefit of such a small readership? Your CR Report could be the ultimate antithesis of a Lady Gaga tweet.

It’s about 20 years since the first companies started reporting on corporate responsibility and sustainability. We’ve come a long way. 95% of the 250 biggest companies in the Fortune 500 now publish a report. It’s fair to say that this represents something of a revolution in corporate transparency.

Reports are used by influential stakeholder groups, from NGOs to shareholders, to assess risk and hold companies to account. Two-thirds of sustainability execs surveyed by Ernst and Young recently said that they had seen an increase in investor enquiries about sustainability issues in the last year. Reports are where these performance and strategy questions can be answered.

The process of reporting also helps managers to manage better. The measurement of environmental and social impact gives them a deeper understanding of their business and enables them to take action that improves efficiency, reduces costs and enhances resilience to threats.

And reporting is getting better and more widespread still. The first smattering of combined annual and sustainability reports is promising to turn into a solid trend towards integrated reporting. Proper data management systems are gradually replacing the ad hoc collection of (or should that be ‘begging for’) data that has been the bane of many a CR Manager’s life. And at a policy level, Rio+20 later this year will see more calls for reporting to become mandatory for big companies around the world.

This is all good news for society and good news for efficient and well-managed businesses. But, for the level of effort put in, and the rich vein of data and ‘good news’ stories that it gathers, companies could be getting a lot more value out of the reporting process.

In the same Ernst and Young survey, the execs said that customers and employees were the most important audiences for ‘CR reports’. Well, if that’s the case, generic reports are not doing their jobs well enough. They probably never will.

Businesses need to think more carefully about what types of communication wider audiences engage with best and what sustainability messages they want to hear. Sustainability is now a core element of the brand narrative for most major companies. We need to liberate it from the reporting ghetto and bring it into the mainstream. That means that, alongside their formal update on sustainability performance, companies should be producing sustainability communications that are integrated, creative, engaging, discursive and targeted.

There are already some good examples of companies doing this. Over the next few weeks, we’ll blog on a few of the best, looking particularly at the role of social media and digital and the use of targeted employee and consumer communications. If you have any examples – good or bad – we’d love to see them.

Josh Bayly

Josh Bayly

Sustainability Consultant
This entry was posted in Digital, Reporting, Sustainability, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Not another sustainability report…

  1. Dead-on, thanks. My former consulting partner and I did a white paper on this very idea in 2010. An interesting tidbit from that was an issue for a Fortune 100 company that NGOs had jumped all over in social media and the press, but that the company had addressed in a report from years earlier – could have easily been avoided and/or mitigated if the company had adequately communicated the issue to its employees and customers.

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