Editor's Note: A version of this post originally appeared on the CSR-Reporting blog.
Is sustainability reporting sustainable?
There are some that think it is. The practice is now more widespread than ever before, and legislation in different parts of the world is supporting increased non-financial disclosure. This would indicate that reporting is here to stay.
On the other hand, there are some that think it isn't. There are those who subordinate sustainability reporting to the new financial reporting trend called integrated reporting, while others advocate online interactive disclosures instead of reports.
As we move into 2015 and face another year of corporate efforts to improve impacts, manage risk and engage with the new opportunities that sustainability brings, amid a flurry of surveys and reports that support the case for or against sustainability reporting, what can companies do to embed reporting practice in a sustainable manner? In addition to the predictable list of things we already know -- focus, clarity, materiality, relevance, balance, frameworks, etc. -- here are some more creative approaches that companies might like to consider.
In order to make reporting more sustainable, directors must be excited about sustainability reporting. They must see it as an advantage, a benefit, a value-adding activity -- and not something they tolerate.
Let's be honest, how many company directors actually read the sustainability reports of the companies they are engaged to be accountable for? How many directors are actually consulted in the process of preparing the report? As key stakeholders, company directors surely deserve some acknowledgement, recognition and even voice in the annual sustainability report.
In order to excite your board of directors, engage them in the reporting process and have them approve the output, here are some things you can do:
Rather than inviting people to a meeting about the sustainability report (yaaaaaaawn!), there are many ways you can involve people in activities that both interest and engage them, while at the same time, getting the information you need for your report. This includes competitions (send us a video of how your job contributes to improving the environment) or prizes (weekend for two for the first complete set of sustainability reporting information sent back to corporate) or ice cream meetings (roundtable discussions with internal and/or external stakeholders on sustainability issues, where the meeting leader brings [lots of] ice cream for consumption during the meeting). There are a million ways to make the reporting process fun, even if, at some point, there is a certain amount of actual hard work to be done.
The minute the report is published is the signal to start the work of engaging employees around the report. Rather than just broadcasting an email announcement -- we published our report (yaaaaaaawn!) -- there are many ways to get your employees to sit up and take notice.
This may include quizzes with prizes (Who is quoted on page 34 of our last report? By how much did our GHG emissions reduce last year?), games (How far can you throw our sustainability report?) and feedback (cross-functional discussion groups -- can be Web-meetings -- each focusing on a single section of the report and analyzing the content together, with recommendations for the next report). You might even involve your employees' children in preparing a poster about how your company makes a positive contribution to the world -- requiring employees to explain the essence of the report messages to their kids. Prizes, of course, for the best contributions.
Each company can find its own way to be creative in developing an engagement process which both informs and interests employees. You might find employees actually enjoy reading the report and discover things about the company -- and their colleagues -- that they didn't know. More importantly, they will be able to talk to stakeholders about the issues that matter in an informed way.
I am not aware of anyone trying to track a product through all the sustainability reports of the companies involved in producing it from raw materials to end-of-life -- that could be an interesting exercise. However, suppliers are big enablers of any business, and their influence on the direct impacts of an organization may be quite significant.
Perhaps suppliers should have a bigger place in sustainability reports -- strategic suppliers can contribute data, case studies and specialist perspectives -- and may be grateful for the recognition their customers' reporting offers them, thereby reinforcing the relationship with them. Once the report is published, reverting to suppliers, emphasizing the key messages, acknowledging their role and encouraging them to adopt sustainable practices in their own businesses is a critical step in maintaining the reporting momentum.
The folks that lead reporting in organizations have to address not only the hard work of reporting -- and it is hard work -- but they also have to overcome these notions that are bandied around saying reporting is worthless.
Reporting leaders in organizations should be celebrated. They have one of the hardest jobs around. Reporters play a critical role in helping organizations move forward sustainably and help shape the future of business. I have often said that reporting is a catalyst for performance, and great reporters know how to use the reporting process to drive change. Make sure the reporting leader in your organization gets the respect s/he deserves, has the resources s/he needs and gains the attention of management as and when needed. Ringfence your reporter and ensure s/he has enough ice cream to last through the entire reporting cycle.
Good luck to all companies starting reporting cycles about now. Let me know how you got on with this list!
Image credit: Flickr/The Natural Step Canada
Elaine Cohen is a CSR Consultant and Sustainability Reporter, founder/manager of <a href="http://www.b-yond.biz/" target="_blank">Beyond Business Ltd</a> and author of the <a href="http://www.csr-reporting.blogspot.com/" target="_blank">CSR Reporting Blog</a>