Five Attributes That Make a Sustainability Report Great

EcoStrategy Group’s new report, Trends in Sustainability Reporting:  A Close-Up Look at Bay Area Companies, provides a helpful overview of the business value for reporting on environmental sustainability and a solid checklist of issues to take into consideration if you are about to embark on a sustainability report.

The study analyzes how the top Bay Area companies report on their sustainability efforts and rates their performance based on 14 specific attributes including:  materiality, stakeholder relevance, target setting/tracking and completeness.

The report begins by exploring the question, “Why Companies Report?” I find two of the answers most compelling:  to respond to increasing volume of inquiries and to manage reputation and brand image.

It includes an assessment of what elements make a sustainability report stand out.

What makes a good sustainability report?

The report includes a description of the essential ingredients of a successful sustainability communications strategy and provides examples of companies that are doing it well. As a professional who helps companies craft sustainability reports, I was interested to see what components the report found most important.

Here are five attributes that make a sustainability report great and some questions to explore if you are just getting started:

1.  Materiality: What issues are most significant? What issues are your competitors reporting on? Bay Area companies that did a stellar job on the issue of materiality, according to the report, include Adobe, Applied Materials and Autodesk. Adobe for example, organizes its CSR strategy and report around six key issues:  employee engagement, community involvement, corporate governance, environmental sustainability, product use and innovation and supply chain and procurement. Its environmental sustainability program focuses on office buildings, waste management and product packaging. It is clear which issues they have prioritized.

2. Stakeholder inclusiveness: Do you have a process for engaging your stakeholders? Do you understand your stakeholders’ perspectives? Cisco and HP were among the top rated companies for this attribute.

3. Target setting and tracking: 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? Apple and Clorox were among the companies ranked high for this factor.

4. Completeness: The authors define a “complete” report as one that considered impacts  in the supply chain, in the distribution channel and in use by the end customer. Seems like the issue of social responsibility and working conditions in the supply chain deserved to be called out here.

5. Ease of use: How many clicks does it take to find your sustainability report online? Can it be easily read without printing it out? This final attribute comes from me and my experience with CSR reports.

Adobe wins some extra points, in my book, with its easy to navigate web site and three-page summary. I got lost inside Autodesk’s 105 page report that took several minutes to find from the home page. Applied Materials was the only web site I visited (I only looked at about six of the winners)  that had a clear, easy link on its home page to its citizenship report.

And the winner is…

The report includes a table of the top-rated companies by size segment and calls out Cisco, HP and Intel as the overall top rated companies.

$1 to $2 Billion

  • Autodesk
  • National Semiconductor

$2 to $5 Billion

  • Adobe
  • Agilent
  • AMD

$5 to $10 Billion

  • Applied Materials
  • Clorox
  • eBay
  • Symantec
  • $10+ Billion
  • Cisco
  • HP
  • Intel

If you want a full copy of the report, you need to e-mail

If you are not reporting, tell us why

The report include a list of large Bay Area companies who are not investing resources in sustainability reporting.  It would be interesting for those of you not reporting to share here your thoughts on why.

Ed Note: The most rigorous standard for sustainability reporting is GRI. 3p is pleased to be offering a certificate course in GRI sustainability reporting this summer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Please click here to get more information.

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.

Deborah Fleischer is founder and president of Green Impact, a strategic sustainability consulting practice that helps companies walk the green talk. She helps companies design and launch new green strategies and programs, as well as communicate about successes. She is a GRI-certified sustainability reporter and LEED AP with a Master in Environmental Studies from Yale University and over 20-years of direct experience working on sustainability-related challenges in both the public and private sectors. She brings deep expertise in sustainability strategy, stakeholder engagement, program development and written communications.Deborah has helped to design and implement numerous successful cross-sector partnerships and new green initiatives, including the California Environmental Dialogue, Curb Your Carbon and the Institute at the Golden Gate.She has helped create lasting alliances among such organizations as Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy with companies such as Disney, Arco, Bank of America and Passport Resorts.You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact or contact her directly at

8 responses

  1. The use of “materiality” is beyond annoying. Concrete suggestions, i.e., those with life and legs, do not include made-up or “new” words. A better go at a great sustainability report might be:

    People who care (because if we don't like these people, we don't care.)
    Measurement of goals
    Clicks for target audience to get to knowledge

    This might not be exactly it, but the goal is clicks, not eyes glazing over.

  2. I'm not sure of the origin of using the word “materiality”–does anyone know? I connect it with the GRI. Its web site states, “The process of assessing materiality, defining report content and setting boundaries are fundamentally tied to making sustainability reporting a strategic planning exercise. Put into plainer language, materiality and boundaries can be understood as:

    · What sustainability issues are important for my organization to manage and monitor in terms of performance?

    · How far does my responsibility for sustainability impacts extend? Where in the production chain should my organization focus its sustainability efforts?

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