Sustainability Reporting: Taking the first steps

Convincing stakeholders - and perhaps even yourself - to undertake your company's first sustainability report is a daunting task. What are the key first steps you must take to embark upon a successful sustainability reporting journey.

Staring out over his dairy farms in Colorado, Craig Edwards was faced with a tough task. His company, Aurora Organic Dairy, had decided to go all in on a new sustainability report as a way to highlight the company’s strong sustainability-led ethos.

As Aurora’s corporate sustainability and innovation manager, Edwards soon discovered that there is a lot to get your head around when beginning the reporting journey.

“The actual report is more of an output – the real driver was around our core values,”  Edwards explains. “Our company has always been routed in an ‘animals, people and planet’ philosophy and a sustainability report was the best way to get this across to people.”

Five year’s later, the company’s first Corporate Citizenship Report was published. It was a resounding success; receiving the “Best First Time Report” award from the Corporate Register Reporting Awards 2015.

So, what was the key to its effectiveness?

Board buy-in

The first step: planning. While the report was published in 2013, the journey actually started long before then.

One of the key catalysts in kick-starting the report was Edwards’ ability to integrate the idea of data collection and transparency at a board level.

Craig noted how, back in 2008, one of the board members was also on the board of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. This member was able to create a partnership between the two, with graduate students developing the first lifecycle assessment of GHG emissions at Aurora over a three-year period. This led to establishment of a CSR steering committee, which eventually formalised the company’s CSR goals.

“Making all of the stakeholders comfortable with transparency, and developing a report with the level of transparency that we felt it required, was a hurdle. We felt it was absolutely a company-wide positive aspect of the journey and we continued that through the next reports. It was a real breakthrough,” Edwards said.

Interestingly, since the establishment of that first report, Aurora Organic Dairy has seen 54% of its waste diverted from landfill. Energy use per half-gallon of milk has been reduced by 12%; CO2e emissions fell by 9%; and water use is down by 9%.

According to Edwards, the development of the CSR report was a fundamental step in allowing Aurora to drive down these figures.

“Looking back the most important step in getting started was developing an awareness and appreciation of everything that this report was going to entail. 

 “It’s difficult to know everything about your company so seeking external guidance by talking to stakeholders and having the guidance of the university was all critical.

“The report gave us tangible benefits and drivers that revolve around the efforts that we put in when producing it. At the end of the day the report was an outcome of a way to do business better.”

Sculpt the framework

With businesses now facing a wealth of guidance and instruction frameworks, it can be easy to become shackled by reporting standards. But Aurora Organic Dairy – which used GRI standards for its report – used the framework as a way to compliment, rather than dictate, its messaging.

“We found the GRI requirements to be very complimentary to what we were trying to achieve with our stakeholders,” Edwards explains. “The end goal wasn’t typing up a report, it was trying to have this foresight and understanding of what the journey would entail and how we and our stakeholders could leverage it to improve our business.

“We were focused on the story of our journey, our goals and reaching those goals, and then where we found places that the GRI requirements were not yet met, we were able to add those with not much trouble.”

Time well spent

Aurora is currently developing its next sustainability report and, looking back at the company’s first one, Edwards is relieved that he had taken the time to draw up a detailed plan of the report.

“We were learning as we went. The extra time was vital for us to reflect on what we were covering along the journey. It was important to absorb new aspects because it helped us develop an understanding of how the company can improve.”

“Right now, we’re developing annual reports, which aren’t as challenging because we’ve got the stakeholders on board. But for anyone starting out, take time in getting the first one right, because you’ll never get that much time again.”

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, Craig Edwards will lead a session dedicated to ‘Taking the first steps on the road to successful sustainability reporting’. 

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

Read the first part of this series here.

In the next part of this Sustainability Reporting series, we’ll be speaking with Kye Gbangbola, author of ‘How to produce a Sustainability Report’.

Matt Mace

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