Sustainability reporting: 10 secrets to success

The concept of developing meaningful, effective and engaging sustainability reports has started to weigh anchor in the business sphere, evolving from a swept-aside entrée to the meaty bulk of fundamental corporate social responsibility.

With a host of stock exchanges and even some governments now refusing to acknowledge a business and its assets as a credible company without evidence of a sustainability report, more and more companies are flocking to release annual updates on their social responsibility progress.

For Kye Gbangbola, founder of Total Eco Management – an award-winning sustainability training service – companies venturing into the realm of sustainability reporting are driven by three overlapping motives: legislation demanding it, visionary leaders implementing it, or a near miss with climate or CSR-related disaster.

Kye specialises in supporting and advising the private and other sectors with their sustainability and reporting responsibilities. He is the author of ‘How to Produce a Sustainability Report‘, published by DoShort.

Kye has watched as the private sector landscape has shifted sustainability reporting and CSR from a ‘would like to do’ to a ‘must do’. But arriving at the foot of what can be a mountainous task can be daunting for starters.

With that in mind, here are Kye Gbangbola’s 10 top tips for writing a succesful sustainability report.

1) Know your angle before you get started

Kye is a firm believer that companies lend themselves to sustainability reports for a variety of reasons. While these reasons can overlap, once you’ve gained an understanding of why you need to publish this report, you can begin to tailor your company’s actions for the desired effect.

“In the past, when you looked at a business, 80% of its dealings were to do with finances and those were the ways that investors acted around each other,” Kye says. “But with increased legislation and then need to tailor companies so they can exist in the future, investors expect people to a have a greater knowledge of wider values.

“No matter what angle you approach this at, sustainability reporting is a must do, otherwise you no longer have a credible proposition for your products and services.”

If a company is recovering from a climate-related mishap, for example, then a sustainability report could be the perfect catalyst for a phoenix-from-the-ashes redemption. Tailoring to the report to certain legislation also gives the company credibility in the stocks, while adopting reporting as a mantra gives your company a new moral compass.

2) Understand your company’s (and stakeholder’s) needs

Kye notes that those creating a report simply because legislation demands it can often get caught in the crosshair of why they are even writing it in the first place. And this can create confusion about th development, structure and key themes of the report.

Having an understanding of where a company fits in with society and the environment makes it a lot easier to see the bottom-line benefits, Kye says.

“Some organisations understand that there is no conflict between profit and responding better to society,” Kye says. “In some industries the fact they respond better to society means they increase their profit margin and their spending goes down while response to products go up.”

In a morally-conscious world more people – especially millennials – want companies to reflect their beliefs, with sustainability at the heart of these beliefs.

3) Get ahead of the game

We’re all familiar with downfall of the hare and the fable that ‘slow and steady wins the race’, but when it comes to sustainability reporting, Kye believes that getting started early can have huge benefits for companies.

“If a company can show that they are taking sustainability into account – especially when others in their sector aren’t showing that much interest – it can paint you in a pretty positive light,” Kye says. “It gives you a chance to become an industry leader and gives you trust, high credibility and good leadership qualities among innovative forward thinkers.”

While companies obviously need to have the ground work ready, getting ahead of the sector and standing out from the crowd will draw stakeholders and consumers to you.

4) Navigate the reporting landscape

Sustainability reports come fitted with guidelines that need to be followed in order to cover the necessities. Kye is a certified ‘GRI G4’ trainer – one of the most popular framework guidelines. Over the years, he has seen too many companies get trapped in the guidelines webs, “trying to tell the story they think others want to hear, rather than the story they have”.

“Reporting is an absolutely living opportunity to enhance its strategic objects, but too many let the guidelines dictate what they end up reporting. The guidelines should complement the story but never drive it.”

By viewing your report as a journey rather than an actual report, Kye feels that it becomes much easier to create a structure that highlights what the company has done and is doing, and streamlines the reporting process.

5) Be honest

As mentioned earlier, companies can be driven to sustainability reporting as a result of a disaster or mistake. While some will want to brush these incidents under the rug, Kye believes that displaying what has happened in an honest fashion actually increases the credibility of the report.

“Some companies may not be hitting the targets they should be hitting. Report writing is about balance, it’s an essential principle. It’s about saying the good and the bad, because it gives the report credibility.

“You can paint a message in many ways but what you do want to do is paint it in an honest fashion. To a person the reports that they trust are ones from organisations that are telling the good along with the bad. It’s important to never run away from the situations that you find yourself in.”

Missed targets or bad press will end up in the public one way or another, but a sustainability report gives companies the chance to turn disappointment into opportunities.

6) Set realistic goals

You wouldn’t run a marathon before you can walk, or try bay parking before you’ve mastered the clutch. So companies going into these reports shouldn’t do so believing they alone can rid the world of climate change.

“We encourage organisations to set smart, realistic and achievable targets otherwise they can come back to haunt you,” says Kye. “This is a public document and if you continue to fail on your targets then it won’t look good. You’ll just end up driving your company into a wall.”

The targets in reports need the right blend of ambition and achievability. Not only does his drive companies towards sustainable goals, it also creates extra emotional drivers that can add strength to a report.

7) Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

While getting ahead of chasing pack can be key in business, doing so without a complete understanding of where you’re actually heading can turn a sustainability report into a time-consuming vacuum.

Kye says: “Understand what the journey will entail so that you don’t end up being in a situation where you’ve over packed. Just bring what you need for this journey otherwise it will bring you to your knees.

“If you prepare well it saves you a huge step of what’s called unintended consequences. The journey will be quicker and smoother; there are just too many pitfalls to fall down.”

As for all means in life, if you fail to prepare for this report, then you can prepare for the report to fail.

8) Get the board on-board

Kye notes that a lot of companies still view sustainability reports as publications that can be worked on in small teams in the background. While it may be possible for a few members of staff to produce a report, getting backing and interest from board members and stakeholders on key sustainability issues can make the entire reporting process much more streamlined.

“Engaging with internal stakeholders is the best way to prioritise what should be reported. Without them the report becomes a heavy burden and can place undue pressure on the reporting team,” Kye says.

“Having investment and interest from the top means that you don’t have to galvanise resources to create a better report because the board members will have a better idea on what the business reflects as a whole.”

It’s no surprise that companies with visionary leaders such as Unilever constantly deliver in regards to reporting – all the strings are pulled by people who truly believe in what they are preaching.

9) Keep your initial expectations relatively low

Similar to having realistic targets in place, it is also important to have a realistic idea of what the end result of your sustainability report will be.

“You have to give reporting your respect; just like any discipline you get better with time,” says Kye. “Just getting across the finish line is an achievement the first time round, and by the third year reporting will be embedded as part of a company’s DNA and will become a natural way of thinking.”

By understanding that the report will take time and may not reflect on where your company wants to be right now, those building the report won’t become disillusioned with the process.

10) Don’t go in blind, and enjoy the journey!

Kye has built his carrier around helping others with their reports, so it’s only natural that seeking guidance would be a key piece of advice.

“Imagine going to a foreign place, its handy to have a guide,” he says. “There are people out there who know about the reporting sphere who can ask the questions that may not be necessarily clear to ask to enhance the report.

“If you can get the guidance and support it will save a lot of hassle and make the journey far more enjoyable.”

edie Sustainability Reporting Concerence 2015

The fifth annual edie Sustainability Reporting Conference takes place on 23 February 2016 at the Inmarsat Conference Centre in London. 

At the event, Kye Gbangbola will lead a session dedicated to ‘Sustainability reporting guidelines – learning from the best’. 

Find out more about the conference and register to attend here.

Read the first part of this series here.

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie