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A decade ago sustainability reporting was still very much in its infancy. Today, it appears to be reaching a ‘tipping point’ – beyond the realm of innovators and FSTE 100s and into the mainstream. But with lots of time and money spent on non-financial reporting, and often with no obvious return, it’s fitting that you should be aware of your audiences in order to get the most out of your efforts. Or it’s really just…unsustainable.
What is sustainability reporting?
A sustainability report is a report published by a company or organisation that looks at its environmental, social and economic performance and impacts and its initiatives for improving performance in these areas. The reporting of non-financial information, including sustainability has, up until now, been voluntary or driven by increasing concerns within society as a whole. But with climate change, clean technology and corporate social responsibility high on the agenda of civil, business and social sectors, a trend towards standardised sustainability reporting has seen over 95 percent of the largest 250 companies in the world produce a sustainability report*. Business objectives, rather than ethical ones, are usually the key reasons organisations implement a sustainability strategy and report on it – to add value through strengthened compliance and therefore trusted corporate reputations as well as to identify and mitigate risks.
Who reads it and why?
Different users look at sustainability reporting from different perspectives, accruing different benefits and insights. Stakeholders typically interested in your report include shareholders, customers, clients, investors, employees, suppliers, regulators, NGOs and local communities.
Almost 30 percent of readers checking your sustainability report are doing so to help them inform a decision and take action on the basis of it. This could be as simple as buying your product or service, or to gain enough insight into opening a dialogue, deciding whether to enter into a partnership with you or invest, or as a means of assessment for prospective job applicants. In some cases, your report, or lack thereof, can even lead to readers deciding whether to campaign against your organisation for negligence or indolence in sustainable practices.
The readers of your sustainability report are looking for a demonstrable link between your business operations and your strategy and commitment to a sustainable global economy. They’re also looking for an honest balance of your good deeds as well as areas that were particularly challenging or could present an opportunity to improve on. While financial reporting is very much a historical account of data, the sustainability framework allows your organisation to present a forward-look of risk management and strategic planning.
Sustainable sustainability reporting – Optimising your approach
In order to be effective, sustainability reporting should be a driver for change that takes robust, certifiable and assured data that helps your organisation to implement sustainability practices that meet economic, natural and human challenges. And it should be written so that it is engaging to the reader. But, to stay competitive in a landscape of eco-conscious start-ups and big business, consider who else might care about how sustainable you are and offer them a condensed summary of your activity and more importantly, your strategy.
Your sustainability report system should support the review of multiple document types including PDFs of fully designed report layouts and shortened summaries with infographics, available to view on various platforms. This offers you the opportunity to actively share your work with relevant interest groups. These could include ‘eco-investing’ or socially responsible investing firms, environmental pressure groups that would support your activity or future strategy, research organisations or even relevant tech and environmental media.
The more crafted your report to look at strategic sustainability opportunities, the more options you have to increase the readership of your report and the positive impacts on the readers’ perceptions.