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 our recent blog about transforming 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 my favorite 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!


The Terrace boosts reporting practice with Marjolein Baghuis

Marjolein is an expert and thought leader on corporate accountability, sustainability reporting and communications. At The Terrace, she will lead the reporting practice and support companies progress reporting from a burden to an inspiring communications opportunity. She will also be involved in sustainable strategy and communications projects.

The Terrace founder Leontine Gast: “We are pleased to add Marjolein's specific knowledge and expertise to our team. Her enthusiasm for positive change fits perfectly with the values of The Terrace. Together, we have all the skills to support companies in their ambitions to deliver positive change”

Through her work for the Global Reporting Initiative, Innate Motion and Change in Context, she has supported companies and people to create clear strategies and reports for positive change. Marjolein is the founder of Change in Context, an online platform for change towards a sustainable economy, which hosts her well-read blog. She also teaches sustainability at Nyenrode Business University. Previously, Marjolein worked for Procter & Gamble, Synovate and Greenpeace.

She is an active board member for the Nyenrode Alumni Circle for Sustainability and the regional Amstelland library. In addition, she serves on the advisory board of eRevalue, a British service provider in the area of ESG/sustainability big data, and speaks regularly at conferences on sustainability, accountability, and reporting.


Have a bath before you open your kimono: sustainability reporting

Is your company ready to open its kimono? In 2010, South African corporate governance expert Mervyn King made the audience laugh at the GRI conference. "If you're going to open your kimono, you better have a bath first." It's actually a great analogy for sustainability reporting and performance. And for companies with more than 500 employees in the EU, it's more timely than ever.

EU directive on non-financial reporting

As of 2018, many European companies with over 500 employees will have to open their kimonos. They will have to publish their 2017 performance on select non-financial topics. The European Union adopted the Directive on disclosure of non-financial and diversity information. And the EU member states have transposed the directive into national law. Therefore, many companies will publish their sustainability performance for the first time in 2018, covering 2017. According to KPMG research, 74% of the largest companies in Europe already publish a sustainability report or integrate non-financial performance in their annual reporting cycle. But thousands of additional companies will have to start reporting when this new directive takes force.  

Time to have a bath!

green-bathFor those companies new to reporting on their sustainability performance, this is the perfect time to create - or update - your sustainability strategy. Or better yet, (further) integrate sustainability into your overall strategy. The EU directive requires reporting on "as a minimum, environmental, social and employee matters, respect for human rights, anti-corruption and bribery matters". It all starts with a thorough analysis to focus your strategy for the years ahead and your action plans for 2017. How do these topics relate to your business future? And how do your stakeholders view this? Are there other societal issues that are relevant to include in your strategy and reporting?

For some companies affected by the EU directive, this bath is just a nice-to-have, as they already have a strategy in place, are making progress and "just" need to take the extra step to start reporting. For others, the bath is a need-to-have to get going with sustainability and start the journey in 2017. So there's real progress to share when they have to open their kimonos in 2018.