Sustainability Reporting: Stories and Stats, Warts and All

As more organizations dip their toes into environmental sustainability as a corporate social responsibility, we see a variety of approaches taken to how they report their related activities. And, frankly, more than a few sustainability and CSR annual reports leave a lot to be desired.

Some companies favor the feel-good approach that goes light on facts and figures. Their reports tend to feature pretty pictures of blue skies, sparkling streams and smiling children. “We recycle,” they boast. “We conserve energy.” But if you’re looking for the numbers to back up these declarations, including targets and do-by dates, you’re out of luck.

Other reports err on the side of too much information devoid of explanation or context. They deliver seemingly endless pages of numbers and graphs. Good luck deciphering what it all means if you lack the proper Ph.D.

The best sustainability and CSR reporting sells the sizzle and the steak.

It all starts with good storytelling, and by that I don’t mean “once upon a time.” Articulating your company’s sustainability story, including your vision, goals and the results of your efforts to-date, pulls people in and sets the stage for the stories yet to come.

The best corporate sustainability communicators—outdoor apparel manufacturer Patagonia and office furniture maker Herman Miller are among many that come to mind—tell their stories in compelling ways that leave a lasting, positive impression. The stories incorporate a variety of perspectives from stakeholders, including employees, suppliers and customers. These companies articulate their vision, their goals and the current results of their efforts. And, yes, they include a pretty picture or two to help illustrate what they’re doing in their manufacturing plants, their retail stores, their offices and their communities.

That covers the sizzle, but true CSR reporting leaders also know a good report doesn’t go far without some facts to back it up. They bring the metrics—and the context—to help readers understand where they are on their sustainability journey. They share their successes, as in “We reduced waste in our plants by 13 percent in 2013,” as well as their setbacks, like “Our companywide initiative to replace conventional lighting with LEDs in all facilities fell short of our goals last year.” This warts-and-all approach lends credibility to their ongoing efforts and speaks directly to consumer demands for greater transparency.

The use of third-party reviewers builds further credibility. Whenever a product or process can earn certification or a similar standard from a nonaffiliated, qualified organization, its shows the company strives to achieve standards set beyond its own walls. (Some third-party certifiers are more qualified than others to set those standards, but that’s another conversation.) The public in general and industry stakeholders in particular are growing increasingly knowledgeable of what belongs in a thorough corporate sustainability report. Thanks to product recalls, safety alerts and questionable environmental choices made by some companies, many consumers’ B-S detectors are set on “high.” Pretty pictures of sparkling streams just don’t cut it anymore.

Exceptional corporate sustainability reporting engages its readers with vivid storytelling, delivers the hard data in easy-to-understand portions, acknowledges the challenges ahead, and inspires others to follow.

About the Author

Chuck Otto
Chuck Otto is principal of Corporate Sustainability Communications.

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