Sustainability reporting and assurance is near and dear to my heart. I not only completed my doctoral research on the topic many years ago, but I have also worked on well over 100 different Sustainability reporting and assurance engagements with companies in many sectors, from oil and gas and electricity to telecommunications and retail, and almost everything in between. Some of the reports were groundbreaking and fantastic, while others… well, not so much.
Over this time I have learned many informal lessons and picked up many reporting tips. Some are do’s, and some are don’ts, and some are “if that happens, then do this”. The list is fairly long, and every year I pick up a few new ones. But for the sake of brevity, I have boiled them down to the following top 10: 5 do’s and 5 don’ts. Feel free to add yours in the comment section.
A. The Dos
A.1 Do think of sustainability reporting as a year-round process, not an annual project.
As soon as you issue your Sustainability report, you should start thinking about the next one. You should be thinking of how to improve the report, both qualitatively and quantitatively. You should be talking to your stakeholders about their interests and concerns, and you should be following the news to determine how world events may affect your business. You should read other companies’ reports to identify innovative practices and trends. You should always be looking for ways to improve both your performance and your report. That is what continuous improvement is all about.
Taking this approach will not only lead to better quality reports, but also better quality decisions: if management and staff know they will have to account for their decisions in the next Sustainability report, they will make their decisions more thoughtfully.
A.2 Do monitor and manage your Sustainability data all year round
Related to A.1 above, there should be no surprises regarding what data is available and what is not when it comes time to write your Sustainability report. You should be talking to the data owners all year round, and assessing the integrity of the data periodically throughout the year, not just at the end of the year. This sounds simple, but is actually not that easy: events such as staffing changes, organizational restructuring, implementation of new software, and acquisitions and divestitures can often lead to data gaps and/or changes in data quality and availability. You should be monitoring for these things all year round.
A.3 Do engage an external assurance practitioner, at least for the complicated performance indicators.
I know this may sound self-serving, but I strongly recommend engaging a legitimate assurance practitioner (see B.5 below) when you are reporting one or more complicated key performance indicators. By “complicated” I mean the quantification process is challenging and the risk of error is high. You can limit the scope of the assurance engagement to just those complicated indicators if you want.
For example, counting the number of women on your Board of Directors is not difficult to do, which means the risk of a material error is low. As such the value of having external assurance on that indicator is also low. On the other hand, quantifying your greenhouse gas emissions can be very challenging, which means the risk of a material error is relatively high. As such, the value of having external assurance on that indicator is high.
Assurance theory suggests that the assurance practitioner provides assurance to the information user, which is indeed correct. But what is often overlooked is that, with complicated indicators, the assurance practitioner also offers assurance to company management that the information they are about to report contains no material errors or omissions. In other words, both the report issuer and the report reader are beneficiaries of the assurance.
A.4 Do print a few copies of your Sustainability Report for special occasions but otherwise post your report on your website.
There’s nothing quite like holding a professionally designed, printed, and bound report in your hands. The feel, look and smell makes the report seem more real. So print some copies for your Board, some managers and employees, and some stakeholders or international dignitaries who may happen to stop by your office. A good rule of thumb is to estimate the total number of people who you may realistically give a hard copy report to, then print half that number. You will probably still have copies left over but if you run out of hard copies, consider that a good thing. Email or text people a link to your online report.
A.5 Do address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in your report.
One of the most exciting developments in the area of Sustainability reporting since the advent of the Global Reporting Initiative is the release of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs (sometimes referred to as the “Global Goals”) comprise 17 goals and 169 targets, ranging from ending poverty and hunger to addressing climate change and economic development. For more information on how the SDGs will change Sustainability reporting click here.
B. The Don'ts
B.1 Don’t include a lot of pictures of smiling children, butterflies, and other “feel good” images
For some reason, many companies think that by adding pictures of smiling children holding up tree leaves, the reader will somehow be convinced that the company is a nice company. That is NOT what Sustainability reporting is about. That is Public Relations. Sustainability reporting is about disclosing honest and accurate Sustainability program and performance information to interested and educated stakeholders. The vast majority of stakeholders do not want pretty pictures. I am yet to meet a pension fund investor who makes his decisions based on how many pictures of deer are in a company’s report.
B.2 Don’t fill your report with useless information
Your Sustainability report is 150 pages long? Good for you. How much of that information is truly relevant and useful to your stakeholders? 30 pages? Great. So what are the other 120 pages doing there? I will tell you: nothing. They are a waste of the readers time and and your money. Unless you are a huge multi-national conglomerate with operations in multiple sectors, your report should be 30 pages or less. Any more than that and you are only fooling yourself. The process of deciding what should be reported is based on the concept of materiality (see my LinkedIn article Sustainability Reporting and Assurance: what the heck is ‘materiality’?). The GRI also offers some very good pragmatic guidance on how to conduct materiality assessments.
B.3 Don’t report raw data and call it information.
You recycled 47.8 tonnes of paper last year. So what? Was that good or bad? How much did you plan to recycle? Why did you exceed / not meet your target? How much paper was not recycled? Are you required by regulation to recycle paper or was it voluntary? What’s the industry norm? How do you know the paper was actually recycled and not incinerated? What’s your goal for next year?
Data without context is just… data. It’s just a bunch of numbers or strings of text. Data with context is information.
B.4 Don’t make the report purely retrospective; include information about your goals and plans.
I agree that the primary purpose of an annual Sustainability report is to account for the year that just ended, so I always expect to see lots of retrospective quantitative and qualitative information. However, when I read through a Sustainability report that contains only retrospective information, I come away feeling dissatisfied. I like to see some information about what the company is hoping to do in the 12 to 36 months.
Several company reps have told me that one of the reasons they shy away from including forward looking information is because it sets performance expectations amongst the readers which, if things go sideways, could potentially lead to litigation by disgruntled investors. I get it. But surely to heavens you can say something about what you would like to achieve next year, even if if you wallpaper it with caveats and limitations. We know you are not perfect, so don’t try to pretend you have no room for improvement.
B.5 Don’t hire just anyone to provide assurance on your report.
OK. I know this one is also going to sound self-serving, but honestly I include this as a warning to those of you who might think that hiring any old cheap sustainability consultant to provide assurance on your report is good bargain. I am here to tell you it isn’t and that doing so is the equivalent to flushing your money down the toilet.
Credible assurance requires two fundamental things:
A legitimate practitioner: A legitimate practitioner has to have the following traits at a minimum: (a) independence from the reporting company, (b) an objective mindset, (c) subject matter expertise, and (d) knowledge of how to plan and execute and report on an assurance engagement.
A legitimate assurance process: a legitimate assurance process must have, at a minimum: (a) an addressee or target audience, (b) a defined scope, (c) defined criteria, (d) a clearly stated level of assurance (e) a repeatable methodology typically evidenced by detailed working papers, and (f) a clear conclusion or opinion.
If your consultant is not a legitimate practitioner, or doesn’t understand what it takes for an assurance process to be legitimate, my advice is do not hire him/her and find someone who knows what they are doing. You will get far more value for your money, and you avoid the risk of major embarrassment when a material error is identified after the report goes out.
So there you have it. My top 5 do’s and top 5 don’ts based on almost 20 years of research and experience in the area. I hope you found them useful.
I also encourage you to add your ‘lessons learned’ and tips in the comment section below. Don’t be shy.
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