by Jonathan Wootliff, Head of Corporate Accountability, Reputation Partners
As more businesses publish sustainability reports, I worry that the practice has become little more than a box-ticking exercise to some companies. The reports come in all shapes and sizes, with a few quality offerings scattered among many that I would argue aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed. Their only saving grace is the growing trend for them to be made exclusively available in the virtual world, reducing the need for shredding.
With trust in corporations at an all-time low, according to a succession of recent opinion surveys, the sustainability report is surely a vital tool for corporations to help protect and enhance their reputations.
Stakeholder appetite for information is ever expanding, with people increasingly interested in knowing far more about a company than just its products, services or financial performance. These voluntarily produced statements should provide the eagle-eyed with insights into the ethical and environmental values of a business – far more than its fiscal value.
But many of these reports often read more like propaganda as opposed to providing transparent accounts of the way in which a company is balancing its equally important management imperatives of people, planet and profit.
Often hiding behind the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) template, many sustainability reports simply masquerade as comprehensive records of a company’s triple-bottom-line performance, while regarded by skeptical stakeholders as PR “puff.”
It’s important for companies to understand who reads these reports. It could well be some of civil society’s most critical watchdogs that may take an interest in the sustainability of any given company. Organizations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch invest considerable time in scrutinizing the information contained in these reports.
Therefore, an effective account of a company’s sustainability performance must surely be conveyed through the lens of the possible doubter, and not only to please the C-suite residents. Smart businesses know how to address the expectations of their most challenging stakeholders. The sustainability report can provide an excellent indication as to how stakeholder savvy a company is.
To have the necessary street credibility, a sustainability report should adequately embrace seven key features:
1. Credible – A company must tell the whole story if it is to convince its most dubious stakeholders. Even the most avid disbeliever can be won over by a report that provides a balanced picture, with warts and all.
2. Verifiable – There is limited value in publishing a sustainability report without having the blessing of a trustworthy third-party to confirm the authenticity of the data.
3. Transparent – Every effort should be taken to lift the corporate veils and disclose the maximum possible amount of information, avoiding accusations of withholding pertinent data.
4. Interactive – The perfect sustainability report should reflect a two-way conversation with stakeholders, shedding the usual corporate habit of publishing a word-perfect piece that satisfies the corporate lawyers.
5. Measurable – Targets should be clearly reported, providing easy-to-compare year-on-year performance statistics, having the confidence to show where the company has fallen below the mark, as well as boasting successes.
6. Actionable – The principle benefit of sustainability reporting should be as a management tool, providing clear direction as to what tangible steps the company must take to improve where needed.
7. Self-critical –The sustainability report is an unprecedented utensil in an otherwise-glossy box of PR tricks, enabling the most sophisticated of corporations to be disarmingly open about the ups and downs of its sustainability journey.
Jonathan Wootliff is the former Communications Director for Greenpeace International and now heads the Corporate Accountability practice at Chicago-based Reputation Partners, where he works with global corporations to build effective corporate accountability strategies, particularly on environmental issues.