Sustainability reporting: Employee engagement critical to overcome ‘treacle layer’ troubles

Communicating and embedding sustainability throughout an organisation is often hampered by a 'treacle layer' at operational level which can make it harder for businesses to develop new environmental strategies and produce succinct corporate social responsibility reports.

That’s the view of Shaun Davis, group director of health, safety, wellbeing and sustainability at the Royal Mail, who believes staff engagement from the boardroom to the frontline is crucial for any businesses looking to reach the highest standards of sustainability reporting.

Speaking at edie’s recent Smarter Sustainability Reporting conference in London, Davis said: “Businesses very often have the top-level commitment from the chief executive and senior leaders. But it’s the operations level – what I call the ‘treacle layer’ – that can be difficult to communicate and drive a sustainability strategy.

“When we talk about reaching the highest standards of reporting, engagement is absolutely essential.  There shouldn’t be a reliance on cascading sustainability messages down from the top and hoping it gets to the bottom. Sometimes you need to hold people by the hand and steer them through that. This might mean working in partnership with internal communications or running masterclasses.

Davis, who joined the Royal Mail from Biffa in 2012, told delegates at edie’s Smarter Sustainability Reporting conference that he communicates his company’s sustainability strategy through a 106-strong field safety team which is fully briefed on the Royal Mail’s CSR targets. “I want them to be articulate and confident to talk to people at the front line about those CSR targets, to try and unlock the treacle layer,” he explained.

“Implementing sustainability initiatives is about helping the people that we want to actually deploy our policies, systems and processes – it’s that part of the virtuous circle that gives us the results. It’s really important that we focus on that operational end. Look back in your own organisation at your own treacle layer and see what you can put in place to get those messages through.”

Mad dash

With the EU’s non-financial reporting directive set to come into force later this year, Davis reiterated the importance of sustainability and reporting managers developing strong internal relations and sharing best-practice with other areas of the business in order to produce well-rounded CSR reports that can become engrained within the organisation.

“Social responsibility teams often face a mad dash at certain times of the year to get information and surface it in their annual report,” Davis said. “But rather than CSR reporting being a sudden process of pulling things together for a single report every year, businesses should capture information throughout the year, by having regular touchdowns with operators and heads of functions to find out what they’re doing, so it all becomes part of the business-as-usual mind-set.

“It can be difficult for a CSR teams within a large organisation to get into some of the remote, out-of-reach locations. At the Royal Mail, we’ve had a lot of success in those areas by having ‘champions’ that regularly share what they’re doing in terms of corporate responsibility, surfacing the stories you might want to include in your report.

“That collective buy-in – getting people to understand that they are part of the whole and that sustainability should be engrained into what they do – does have huge benefits for any company when it comes to sustainability reporting.”

Luke Nicholls

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