How to leverage external and internal perspectives for focus

Once the sustainability reporting journey has been connected and planned, it’s time to bring the outside in by engaging key stakeholders. Of course, you are creating the report to share your vision and progress, but if you are aware of what stakeholders care about, you can take this into consideration. Both in what you include in the sustainability report and in how you engage with these stakeholders around and beyond the report.

Start by making a list of your key stakeholders – inside and outside the organization. Who are they and why do you consider them a key stakeholder? How do you already engage with them? Can you integrate the topic of sustainability (reporting) into these regular conversations, surveys, etc.? If not, what would be a good way to discuss with them what their expectations are regarding your sustainability strategy and reporting?

Whatever format you choose, be sure to ask them about the key topics you identified. And be open to additional suggestions from their side. Don’t just fire questions at them, but really listen and ask follow-up questions to deepen your understanding of their concerns and ideas. And it may be very tempting, but this is not the time to sell your own ideas, to try to convince people of your vision and focus.

Cecile Theunissen, Sustainability Manager at Appèl Catering shares their experience: “Conducting these interviews was a really interesting experience for us. Especially the internal interviews; they not only fueled our thinking, but they also enlarged the engagement with the sustainability strategy.” Sabrina Simons, Serious Communication Manager at chocolate impact company Tony’s Chocolonely says: “Every year, we collect hundreds of responses from our choco fans, retailers, suppliers and other stakeholders through an online survey around our annual FAIR report. From all over the world, people help us understand their priorities and concerns, mainly around our mission to make slavery-free the norm in the chocolate industry.”

What will be the key topics to cover in the report, connected to your (sustainability) strategy, your value chain, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) you’ve committed to? Is there a central theme emerging already? Are there certain benchmarks or guidelines you want to meet with the report (like the GRI Standards, the Transparency Benchmark or the UNGC Communication on Progress)? Not so sure what the topics should be yet? Then check out some sustainability reports from other companies in your industry, and don’t forget to browse the reports of key customers and suppliers.

Once the stakeholder insights have been captured, it’s time to select the key topics for the upcoming sustainability report. To provide focus and alignment for the rest of the reporting journey. In this phase, the materiality matrix can be a useful tool to plot the stakeholder interests against those of the company. We strongly recommend doing this with a multi-disciplinary team, ideally including senior managers.

Materiality axes

On the horizontal axis, you can also plot the impact of the company. This actually is the better way to select the key (or material) topics for your sustainability strategy or report. But if it’s your first reporting journey or you’re crunched for time, the importance for the company is a really good starting point.

Once you’ve chosen the key topics, be sure to get them signed off by senior management to avoid any misalignment on focus later on in the process. Ideally, each topic is already embedded in your sustainability strategy, and has clear KPIs, with concrete goals and an approach to reach them. If not, creating this for each topic can be a goal in itself for the year ahead. Last but not least in this phase is the creation of a page plan, in which you capture the flow of the report. At this point in time, this usually takes the shape of a table. What will be the key chapters, what topics will be covered in each chapter and how much space will you a lot to them? Is there a central theme you’d like to use for this year’s report?

Yvette Moll, Communications Director at non-food discounter Action describes their materiality process: “The core reporting team first plotted the vertical axis based on a series of presentations about the stakeholder insights. We then used the corporate strategy and the Action Sustainability Strategy to plot the same topics along the horizontal axis. In a second workshop, we aligned the focus topics with our executive board.”

Once you’ve chosen and aligned the focus of the report, it’s time to collect the content for the upcoming report. This will be the topic of our next reporting blog.

Want more personalized guidance than our blogs provide? Consider joining our reporting webinar (2 Oct) or our reporting workshop (29 Oct) in Amsterdam. 

This blog is part of The Terrace’s series on Reporting for Positive Change. Sustainability reporting can be a vital process to support the sustainability strategy within in a company. Yet often, this isn’t the case. Companies report on positive change – rather than reporting for positive change. Every year we support many companies and other organizations on their sustainability reporting journey. In this blog series, we share key learnings – from across our reporting projects and clients.