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Top tips for reading sustainability reports

To mark International Literacy Day, this post is about reading sustainability reports. In 2016, the theme for International Literacy Day actually was “Reading the Past, Writing the Future”. Which is quite similar to a recent blog post about how to transform sustainability reporting to a tool for positive change. But that’s a different story, as this blog is not about writing reports, but rather about reading them.

An ever increasing number of companies publish a sustainability report. Or integrate sustainability into their annual reporting process.  The question is, who reads these reports? And are the readers finding any use for the sustainability data and stories presented in the reports?

 

Who’s reading?

In 2015, the Global Reporting Initiative, creators of the most widely-used sustainability reporting standards, co-authored a report with Oxfam, Informing decisions, driving change, about how different stakeholders read and use sustainability data captured in sustainability reports. It offers a comprehensive view of the key users of sustainability data, such as civil society organizations, investors, business, governments, market regulators, and media.

Some would argue that consumers also belong on that list, as well as prospective employees. Very different stakeholders with very different objectives. Yet all trying to get insights from reading the same sustainability report! Besides a few reporting geeks, many people may wonder how to best read or assess a sustainability report. So here are some tips to guide your reading!

 

Commitment or compliance?

The fact that a company has a sustainability report, doesn’t always guarantee a real commitment to making their company more sustainable. A company may simply report only to comply with regulations. So a key thing to look for when reading a sustainability report is commitment. Is top management involved and engaged? What are they committed to exactly? How are decisions made regarding sustainability topics? The introduction to the report by the CEO or chairman is the best place to look for “commitment” signals. A great way to test the depth of this commitment is to cross-check the introduction of the financial report. If there is no mention of relevant sustainability topics there, then that commitment may not run so deep.

 

Connected context

The selection of topics for the sustainability strategy and report generally shows how connected a company is to its environment. So the next thing to look for in a sustainability report is a clear understanding of the company’s context. Is the sustainability strategy linked to the vision and mission of the company, or is it focused on totally different topics? Are environmental and social risks and opportunities explored in relation to the business model? If you are less familiar with a specific industry, this may be hard to assess. In that case, reading parts of the sustainability reports of companies in the same industry will generate insights on the key topics.

Large companies are expected to act according to the OECD Guidelines and adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. And all companies can use the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework to assess how their business contributes to a better world. So when reading a sustainability report, check whether and how the company references these frameworks.

When done well, companies select their so-called material topics after engaging relevant stakeholders, such as employees, clients, investors, NGOs, and communities. Through a materiality matrix, many companies plot the interests of their stakeholders against the interests or impacts of the company. That matrix and the accompanying text are usually the most interesting parts of any sustainability report.

 

Completing the cycle

Sustainability is all about the future, yet reports tend to look back in time. So when reading a sustainability report, check whether the report on past performance is in function of the future. Are the long-term objectives clear, as well as the strategies and policies to reach them? Are they closely linked to the material topics identified? Does the report share relevant results for the past year as well as previous years as a benchmark? How do these results stack up against the goals for this reporting year?

Are the results balanced? Not just sharing what went well, but also the learnings from things that did not go as well? And does the report provide insight into the specific goals and action plans for the year ahead? These kinds of questions help you assess whether there is a structured, full circle approach to sustainability for the company. In which reporting is a key instrument to fuel improvement, rather than a goal in itself.

 

Consistency

The GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards (and Guidelines) help companies to prepare their sustainability report, but they also help the readers. Especially the GRI Content Index, which lists the standard set of disclosures for all companies and includes the material topics selected by the company. With it, the reader can easily find the pages for each topic.

And just like it’s useful to scan the sustainability report of a company’s peers and the financial report, it can be tremendously useful to have a look at previous reports by the same company. Is the company consistently reporting on the same material topics? If not, are there good reasons to change the scope of the strategy and report due to changes in context? Or is the company cherry picking its stories and KPIs from one year to the other, to always have good news to show?

And last, but not least, is the sustainability report itself consistent with the materiality analysis? Are the topics in the report – and the space they are given – in line with the materiality analysis? If not, it may be time to look for the page that highlights how to get in touch with the company about their report!

 

Written by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis) for The Terrace and Change in Context blogs. To read about interesting people, book reviews and other posts about change, communications and sustainability, please subscribe.