Hit Your First Sustainability Report Out of the Park

A white leather baseball on a grass field on a sunny day, with copy space

By Jen Boynton

At this year’s 2018 GRI Reporters’ North America Summit, participants got deep into all the best ways to improve their sustainability reporting with increased materiality, stakeholder engagement and communications.

But the conference also served newer reporters, sharing tips and tools for those just getting started with reporting.

Stewart Rassier from the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, an experienced consultant with multiple “first reports” under his belt, together with Jamie Jones Ezefili from Northern Trust, an accomplished first time reporter, shared some best practices for first time reporting.

“The first report is hands down the most difficult report you’ll have to do,” Rassier explained, which was oddly reassuring. The most important thing is to get started, because each subsequent reporting cycle allows a company to get a little more transparent.

The reason it’s the hardest is that reporters generally underestimate the legwork involved. That’s because a sustainability report isn’t just a collection of good deeds, although those are nice. In addition to being a communications document, “A GRI report is a tool for organizational change,” Rassier noted. By following the GRI reporting methodology, a company is encouraged to talk to a few more stakeholders, benchmark, collect and analyze data and get a little deeper in every reporting cycle. Each of these steps requires a little bit more buy-in from a few more co-workers. Indeed, the GRI methodology provides a detailed roadmap for producing a comprehensive sustainability report. A true reckoning of a company’s environmental and social impact is more complicated than a list of donations and volunteer activities.

Host a kickoff meeting
The very very first step for an intrepid reporter is to host a kickoff meeting with key stakeholders: people who want to be involved (leadership and key advocates) and people who need to be involved, who own data you will need to access. Jones explained that bringing everyone together allowed the team to feel like a group. After one pass through the reporting cycle, Jones made sure to thank everyone who helped her by utilizing Northern Trust’s existing internal rewards system for employee engagement. She also made sure to communicate with all the relevant managers and the management group.

At the start of the next reporting cycle, “everyone accepted my kickoff meeting request right away. No one tried to delegate, so [these engagement techniques] seemed to work really well.”

Each year the number of important parties may evolve as a reporter better understands the stakeholders and the information they want. This feedback can inform future reports. “I get letters all the time from shareholders and stakeholders and that informs us,” Jones explained. “If people ask how many women on the board, I need to make a point of disclosing.” This type of engagement with the issues that matter to stakeholders is the basis of any strong sustainability report.

Collect data
After the kickoff, it is time to collect data. Rassier suggests collecting what is available even if it is not comprehensive, even if it is not ready for prime time. Try to get it all — even if data owners are not ready to disclose. “Promise colleagues that you won’t disclose anything without their permission. Tell them you are just collecting for now, and there will be many chances to review.” He offered. This allows the team to get a lay of the land and see what is possible. Ultimately, the company will likely not be able to share everything and that’s ok. But the comprehensive data collection allows for a “lay of the land” assessment and future benchmarking if need be. If colleagues balk at sharing certain data, take a look at what competitors are sharing and offer that as an example. Remind colleagues of how few lawsuits (zero) have actually come from corporate responsibility disclosures in all the decades companies have been reporting. Rely on data that already exists While the sustainability reporting process will likely involve tracking new data, a lot will already be available. Jones found that 40 percent of the data in the sustainability report she drafted came from the annual report. Using these existing public data, especially those that have already been vetted, is a great way to build out a first report. Then key metrics can be expanded in future reporting cycles.

Focus on nerds, punters and employees
When it comes to the actual writing, Rassier recommends remembering three main readers: sustainability nerds like the readers of this article, punters who are interested in a specific element of your company, and employees. What does each group care about? Include that information first. To tell the best stories, balance hard numbers with individual stories to create meaning for all these readers. Rassier also recommends that reporters look for “microcosms of goodness” to feature: teams or buildings that have an innovative solution to a waste, energy or employee engagement challenge. By featuring these success stories, a reporter lays the case for replicating those wins in other parts of the company, to increase impact.

Posted April 6, 2018 in Vol. 8 No. 4 - July/August 2017