I love making lists. Following my recent list of reasons why sustainability reports really are worth the effort, I’ve compiled a list of the five biggest mistakes we see companies make in reporting:

  1. Starting too late: Almost without exception, processes to create sustainability reports start about three months too late. Rather than being driven by the need to convey compelling strategy, reports are driven by the need to hit deadlines. BSR’s advice: Start early.
  2. Following an ad hoc signoff process: I am constantly amazed that while annual financial reports go through such a planned, orderly signoff processes, sustainability reports seem to be shared among a random group of people without clear agreement of who has the final say. BSR’s advice: Follow a structured signoff process.
  3. Using the tactical over the strategic: After a report is published, all participants usually agree that the process should change next time and be based on a reporting strategy with improvements to be achieved over a three- to five-year timeframe. But before we know it, the deadline cycle starts again, and suddenly it’s too late for strategy. BSR’s advice: Create a three- to five-year reporting strategy during the off-season.
  4. Failing to connect the quantitative indicators and qualitative narrative: Report readers appreciate clear graphs indicating the company’s performance and a narrative describing why the indicators went up or down, whether this is good or bad, and what might happen in future years. But too often, the company fails to make the direct link between qualitative narrative and quantitative data. The link is made in annual reports, so why not in sustainability reports? BSR’s advice: Directly link the performance data and accompanying narrative.
  5. Focusing on internal audiences at the expense of external readers: Reports are mostly written for external audiences—investors, civil society leaders, and other decision-makers—yet, far too often, companies focus more on meeting the expectations of stakeholders within the company. Internal politics played out in the public ream is not a pretty sight, what with irrelevant content and internal jargon. BSR’s advice: Focus on the reader.