Six ways to give your sustainability report the 'X Factor'

At Ethical Corporation's sustainability and reporting conference this week we held an "X Factor" session on reporting.

The idea was that corporate managers would pitch sustainability reports, and we choose a winner, just for fun and to spark discussion with the audience, and then had a popular vote at the end.

Three brave companies, HP, Co-operative Group UK and Reed Elsevier, presented their reports in brief.

Our judges, Mike Tyrell of SRI-Connect and Mallen Baker, of many hats, but most recently this one, offered their views.

I had to cast a deciding vote, and went for Co-op because they have a holistic plan on sustainability, and I feel all companies need one of those.

More on that in another post.

Luckily for me, our audience also agreed when we put it to a public vote.

It's of course not fair to compare companies who are so different, which is why we just did the vote for fun.

Here is an earlier post on the conference from Wednesday.

In casting my deciding vote (it was just for run, no gongs were handed out) I laid out the six things I would look for in a sustainability report that has the "X Factor".

These are:
  1. Humility and honesty

    This is fairly self explanatory. But as Mallen Baker put it at the conference, most companies seem utterly reluctant "to admit they are less than perfect". Humble approaches to communication/reporting are vital, yet still sorely lacking in most reports.

  2. Genuine evidence of stakeholder engagement

    Again this is fairly obvious. But we don't see much of it in many reports. It's hard to demonstrate genuine employee engagement, but it can be done by showing critical comments as well as praise from staff members. Critical NGO comments/praise are vitally important for credibility. Companies like usually, at best, to rely on safe stakeholders who are actually consultants looking like activists. This is not sustainable. Of course, not every company can have comments from Greenpeace or the Clean Clothes Campaign etc, but there are other, local or issue specific groups out there you can also engage, and use comments from. More effort is needed here by companies.

  3. Demonstrate real impact reductions and outcomes, with context

    Obvious again. But many reports still focus on pledges and corporate speak than real detail on environmental impact reductions, or social indicators that show positive progress. I'm not saying it is easy, but at least, if numbers are given, context for doing so in the wider arena is very important.

  4. Show how CR/sustainability is linked to innovation and opportunity

    There's not a lot more to say here. Too many reports are obviously defensive libraries of data. Much more focus on them as a tool for innovation should be considered. But a good report engages people in the business, and they can drive innovation and new ideas. Talking about practical ways to use engagement for new products and services is the best way for companies to turn "defence" into "offense".

  5. Have a holistic 'plan' for 2020 and beyond

    Lots of companies feel this approach is too ambitious. "We can't commit to things we don't know we can do" is a common refrain. This paradigm is increasingly indefensible. The same argument would not be used on the subject of running the business in a shareholder meeting, for example. Yes these plans are tough, but you can either lead, or follow. And even the followers will have these plans in a few years time. So why not get ahead now? More on this in another post.

  6. Use targeted messages to communicate progress to stakeholders

    As Peter Knight from Context puts it so well "The report is the cone, communication is the ice cream". What he means here is that the report is essentially a repository of information, and then targeted messages from it should be sent out to specific stakeholder groups. This is the right approach, but still few companies do it well. More on that also in another post soon.
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