Thinking of writing your first sustainability report?  Or want to take yours to the next level?  Here is a solid checklist of issues to take into consideration if you are about to embark on a sustainability report.

While some argue why bother, since no one reads these reports anymore, especially a 60+ page report with a big “thud” factor.  Sustainability reports are an expected best practice and investors, employees and stakeholders expect to see a report as a sign of your commitment to social responsibility.  In addition, since more and more investors and rating agencies are using sustainability reports to screen investments, a solid report can help companies easily respond to the increasing volume of inquiries.  In addition, the report process can strengthen your sustainability program and relationships with stakeholders.

Read on for four tips for a winning report.

Four Tips for Writing a Winning Sustainability Report

Here are four tips for writing a winning sustainability report and and some questions to explore if you are just getting started:

1.  Conduct a materiality analysis: Take the time upfront to conduct a materiality analysis.  A term coined by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), materiality is the process of identifying the issues that are of high concern to your stakeholders and also of high strategic relevance to your company.

These are the issues that should be at the core of your corporate responsibility approach and communications strategy.

Symantec has done a stellar job at defining the issues most material to their stakeholders in its new sustainability report.  One glance at the diagram to the right helps readers understand what issues are most significant.

Identify what issues your competitors are reporting on and review stakeholder and investor surveys to see the breadth of questions they are asking.

2. Engage stakeholders: Do you have a process for engaging your stakeholders? Stakeholder engagement is a process of reaching out to a range of constituents who are interested in, or impacted by, your business, including employees, investors, suppliers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), consumers, governmental agencies and thought-leaders.  In the context of reporting, you want to know what issues are most important to the people that are most relevant to your business.

I give Seventh Generation high marks on this criteria.  It has done a stellar job of engaging its consumers and retailers, as well as working with a stakeholder panel to get feedback on the report.  “We take a pretty broad approach to engaging our full set of stakeholders. They are given an opportunity to review the first draft of the report,” said Miller.  The panel, organized by Ceres, included other companies, NGOs, manufacturing partners and for the first time, a retailer participated as well as an employer.  They even go as far as summarizing the input they got.

3. Set targets, track results and be transparent about your progress: Have you clearly established measurable reduction targets? Do you have a system in place to track and report progress? Are you tracking greenhouse gas emissions? Are you transparent about your successes as well as challenges in meeting your goals?  This is where many first time reports fall short.  Symantec and Seventh Generation recently did a stellar job at making their targets, and progress toward reaching them, clear.

Get CEO-level support and agreement on what level of transparency you are ready for.  Personally, I think it is valuable to to discuss your key challenges and action plan for addressing them, but not all companies are ready to do this.

4. Make the report easy to find and engaging to read: How many clicks does it take to find your sustainability report online? Can it be easily read without printing it out? Is the information on your most material issues easy to find?  Both Symantec and Seventh Generation‘s new reports use an interactive, web-based format that I think will be the wave of the future for reports.  Symantec’s report includes a nice, short Executive Summary that can be printed out.

Push hard to deliver the report in an on-line format.  While some say the CSR report is dead because no one reads them, I would argue that interactive on-line reports are the wave of the future.

As Joel Makower has reported, “As for me, I still like the rule of thumb I learned nearly 20 years ago about how to think about reporting, at least from a quantity-versus-quality perspective: A successful report needs to be long enough to be credible and short enough to be readable.”

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Deborah Fleischer is president of Green Impact, a strategic environmental consulting practice that helps companies walk the green talk. Green Impact designs campaigns to engage employees and develops sustainability communications that bring successes to life. You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact.

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