Explore what makes a standout sustainability report with these seven essential attributes, delivering clarity, impact, and engagement.
Any corporate sustainability conversation is incomplete without talking about sustainability reporting. But what exactly is a sustainability report, and why should your organization care? A sustainability report is a public document that discloses a company’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) impact and performance. Like annual financial reports, it is a standardized way for companies to communicate their sustainability commitments and progress to stakeholders, including investors, customers, employees, and the community at large.
Sustainability reports typically cover a wide range of topics, but they are usually under these three categories:
- Environmental disclosures: Includes information on the company’s greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, waste production, and pollution levels.
- Social impact disclosures: Includes information regarding the company’s employee relations, human rights record, and community engagement.
- Governance disclosures: Includes information on the company’s board composition, executive compensation, decision-making, and risk management practices and procedures.
A standout sustainability report can distinguish your organization in a crowded marketplace, attract responsible investors, employees, and consumers as well as strengthen your brand’s reputation.
In this article, we deep dive into 9 essential attributes that provide the foundation for drafting a standout sustainability report. Whether you’re a sustainability professional seeking best practices or a business leader aiming to navigate the sustainability landscape effectively, this article is your essential resource.
1. Clarity and comprehensibility
With sustainability reporting, clarity, and comprehensibility are essential. But what do these terms really mean, and why do they matter? Clarity means your report is to the point, free of jargon, and well-structured. Comprehensibility means that the information delivered to stakeholders through the sustainability report is easy for them to understand.
Why are clarity and comprehensibility crucial? In a world full of information, stakeholders appreciate reports that respect their time and intelligence. A clear and concise sustainability report ensures your message isn’t lost in a sea of data. It fosters engagement, understanding, and trust.
How can you write such a report? Start by knowing your audience. Use plain language, steer clear of technical jargon, and organize your report logically. Highlight key points, use visuals like charts, and trim redundant content.
2. Impact Assessment
A standout sustainability report will report on the company’s sustainability performance, with relevance to its impacts. This means that if a company reports on its waste reduction efforts it will form a part of a section that also provides data about its overall waste impact.
Impact assessment is the process of identifying and measuring the positive and negative social, environmental, and economic impacts of overall operations, a policy, program, or project. It is an important tool for ensuring that sustainability efforts are effective and that they are having the desired outcomes.
There are many different ways to conduct an impact assessment. One common approach is to use a case study methodology. This involves selecting specific sustainability initiatives and conducting a detailed analysis of their impacts. Case studies can be very effective at providing real-world examples of how sustainability efforts can make a difference.
Another approach to impact assessment is to use quantitative methods. This involves collecting data on key sustainability indicators and measuring the company’s progress over time. Quantitative impact assessment can be used to track the company’s performance on specific sustainability goals, such as reducing its greenhouse gas emissions or increasing its water efficiency.
Finally, impact assessment can also involve collecting and sharing results of targeted stakeholder engagement for example surveys, and focus group engagement results. This can provide valuable insights into the impact that the company’s sustainability efforts are having on its employees, customers, suppliers, and the community at large.
A relevant sustainability report is tailored to the specific needs and interests of the company’s stakeholders. This means that the report should focus on the sustainability issues that are most important to stakeholders and that it should provide information that is useful to them for making decisions.
Relevance is important because it ensures that the sustainability report is read and used by stakeholders. A report that is not relevant to stakeholders is likely to be ignored, which defeats the purpose of producing a sustainability report in the first place.
To write a relevant sustainability report, companies should first identify their key stakeholders and their sustainability priorities. This can be done through surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Once the company has identified its key stakeholders and their sustainability priorities, it can then tailor the sustainability report to meet their needs.
A transparent sustainability report should disclose all relevant information, both positive and negative. The report should also be clear and easy to understand, and it should avoid using jargon or technical language that is not accessible to all stakeholders.
Transparency is fundamental to sustainability reporting because it builds trust between the company and its stakeholders. When stakeholders believe that a company is being transparent about its sustainability performance, they are more likely to trust the company and to support its sustainability efforts.
One of the most used ways to ensure transparency is by using worldwide recognized sustainability reporting standards such s GRI and SASB. These standards provide disclosures for reporting that ensure that all relevant ESG information is shared.
Some guidelines on how to write a transparent sustainability report:
- Disclose all relevant information. This includes both positive and negative information about the company’s sustainability performance. Companies should not try to hide or downplay any information that is relevant to stakeholders.
- Be clear and concise. The report should be written in a way that is easy to understand for all stakeholders. Companies should avoid using jargon or technical language that is not accessible to everyone.
- Be honest and accurate. The report should provide honest and accurate information about the company’s sustainability performance. Companies should not try to mislead stakeholders or present their performance in a more positive light than it actually is.
A balanced sustainability report provides a fair and accurate representation of the company’s sustainability performance. This means that the report should give equal weight to both positive and negative information, and it should avoid overstating or understating the company’s performance.
A good way to look at this is through the concept of Double Materiality which ensures that the material topics that are reported on, are chosen based not just on the interest of the company but also on that of the environment and elements of society that it’s operations affect. A good example of this is the climate crisis. Even though it is a wider phenomenon every organization now has to try and understand and mitigate its contribution to it.
Here are some examples of how companies can make their sustainability reports more balanced:
- A company that has a strong track record of sustainability performance should not be afraid to discuss its challenges in its sustainability report. For example, the company could discuss the challenges it is facing in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions or in increasing its use of renewable energy.
- A company that is facing challenges in its sustainability performance should not try to hide or downplay these challenges in its sustainability report. Instead, the company should be transparent about the challenges it is facing and the steps it is taking to address them.
- A company that has made significant progress on a particular sustainability issue should not be afraid to highlight this progress in its sustainability report. However, the company should also be careful not to overstate its progress or to mislead stakeholders about the company’s overall sustainability performance.
6. Sustainability Vision and Action Plan
A sustainability vision and action plan is a roadmap for how a company plans to achieve its sustainability goals. It should be clear, concise, and measurable, and it should be aligned with the company’s overall business strategy.
The sustainability vision should describe the company’s long-term sustainability goals. What does the company hope to achieve in terms of its environmental, social, and economic performance? The sustainability action plan should outline the specific steps that the company will take to achieve its sustainability vision. It should include timelines, resources, and responsibilities.
It is important to note that the sustainability vision and action plan should be living documents. They should be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure that they are aligned with the company’s changing needs and priorities.
A sustainability report that is assured has been reviewed by an independent third party to verify that the information in the report is accurate and complete. The assurance process typically involves the third party reviewing the company’s sustainability data and documentation, interviewing key personnel, and visiting company facilities if necessary.
Assurance is quickly becoming a part of the sustainability reporting compliance environment. Assurance enhances the credibility of the sustainability report. When stakeholders know that a sustainability report has been assured by an independent third party, they can be more confident that the information in the report is accurate and reliable.
How to get your sustainability report assured
To get your sustainability report assured, you should contact an assurance provider. Assurance providers are typically sustainability professionals and organizations that have expertise in sustainability reporting.
The assurance process will vary depending on the assurance provider and the scope of the assurance engagement. However, the typical assurance process will involve the following steps:
- The company will provide the assurance provider with its sustainability report and supporting documentation.
- The assurance provider will review the company’s sustainability data and documentation.
- The assurance provider will interview key personnel to understand the company’s sustainability management systems and processes.
- The assurance provider may visit company facilities to verify the company’s sustainability performance.
- The assurance provider will issue an assurance report that states whether the sustainability report is accurate and complete.
Sustainability reporting is an important tool for companies to communicate their sustainability commitments and progress to stakeholders. A standout sustainability report will be clear, concise, relevant, transparent, balanced, and assured. Additionally, a well-written sustainability report can help companies attract and retain investors and customers, improve employee morale and engagement, reduce risk, and increase profitability.