Sustainability Reports: Worth the Effort?

February 15, 2012
  • Dunstan Allison-Hope portrait

    Dunstan Allison-Hope

    Senior Advisor, BSR

I have spent the first six weeks of 2012 working with companies to create sustainability reports, and the mix of companies has been refreshingly diverse—first-time reporters and experienced old-hands, reporters from developed and emerging markets, companies with huge direct impacts and those with a much smaller footprint.

Traveling back from one of these engagements I began to wonder: Is all this effort on sustainability reporting really worth it?

Reflecting on this, I started with the obvious: BSR’s mission—working with business to create a just and sustainable world—requires corporate transparency. It is vitally important that decision-makers at all levels—customers, policy makers, regulators, and members of civil society—have reliable and comparable sustainability performance information to make informed decisions.

Clearly, creating sustainability reports supports our mission.

While this is true, I wasn’t satisfied by my answer any more than I was satisfied by my cramped seat in economy.  Many consulting firms help companies create sustainability reports, so there must be something more that sets our approach apart. Somewhere above Lake Michigan, long after my laptop battery had died, I wrote a list.

1. Sustainability reporting helps define how companies address the world’s biggest sustainability challenges. In theory, strategy comes first, and reporting communicates progress. But in reality, the report-writing process—defining a company’s point of view and articulating future plans—has a significant influence on a company’s sustainability strategy. Words are powerful, and in a sustainability report they grab the attention of the CEO. I’ve noted many engagements in which BSR colleagues have ensured that difficult topics are not avoided, that the company’s sustainability objectives are challenged, and that the report points the company in ambitious and more sustainable directions.

2. The sustainability field needs extensive capacity-building. It’s amazing what one hears when creating a sustainability report. The license to speak to leaders across a company about everything they are doing on sustainability is one enormous learning opportunity for both BSR and the company. During a reporting project, we dive deeply into hot sustainability topics, yet we also step back to look at the complete picture. Sustainability reporting projects make for great source material, significantly enhancing the experience for the client, who gets much more than a copywriter. Instead, they gain strategic insights across a whole spectrum of sustainability issues.

3. While report readers tend to be global, report writers are often not. It never ceases to amaze me how often a reporting project consists of a few people at a sheltered company HQ trying to write a globally relevant report. Sustainability is a global challenge requiring a global response, and for this reason we’re often tasked with making sure that global perspectives are given their deserved attention. I can recall many times when BSR staff of different nationalities or international experiences bring new and challenging perspectives to bear on report copy—and with that, they influence company strategy, too.

4. Reports serve as platform for dialogue. A key belief underlying BSR’s work is that greater collaboration between stakeholders and companies is required to create lasting solutions to global sustainability problems. Yet in reality this dialogue is hindered by a massive knowledge gap: Companies see the world through the lens of their specific products, services, and technologies, and are unable to see the bigger picture. Stakeholders, meanwhile, are full of grand ideas, but struggle to make them relevant for the specific business. Sustainability reports provide the means to bridge this gap, allowing each to more easily see the world from the other’s perspective.

As my 10-hour flight reached the gate at Chicago O’Hare airport, I dashed to my connection with a renewed spring in my step, energized by fact that our reporting efforts do make an impact. And then I saw the line for San Francisco…

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