Sustainability reporting is important — arguably essential.
You already know that — and so does everyone else. Just google “what percentage of companies publish a sustainability report,” and you’ll have so many metrics it will be hard to choose one to reference. So how can you ensure your report stands out?
Sustainability reports have evolved from something a few companies did to demonstrate corporate ethos into something many companies do to achieve competitive advantage. The transparency and accountability they bring are a good thing for companies, investors, employees and other stakeholders.
The sustainability reporting evolution has also seen a move from the catchy “People, Planet and Profits” structure to the more staid sounding ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting.
And that’s also caused some reporting to be, as my former coworker used to say, “dry as toast.”
There are some cases where that’s fine — like when you’re writing for robots. Investment firms use artificial intelligence to evaluate your report, and that’s important. They’re scanning your report and checking off boxes per their disclosure criteria to compute your rating.
The “why” does not matter to a machine. But you’re not just writing for the ‘bots. Your sustainability report is also an important part of your company’s reputation and persona. Your employees, your potential employees, your competitors, your investors, your critics and your biggest fans are people. And they need a narrative.
Even those of us who like to think we make decisions based solely on logic and facts are influenced by emotion and connect more deeply to a narrative than a data table. It’s why cars come in different body styles and colors. If the decision on what vehicle to drive were based solely on logic, everyone would drive the same no-nonsense vehicle, and it would only come in one drab, cost effective color.
The need for a narrative in your reporting is most starkly obvious when you read the line in the CEO letter at the beginning of most reports: “People are our most important asset.”
It’s ubiquitous because it’s true. A company is nothing without its employees. But all too often, that line is followed by a report with no further mention of the people who do the work.
Whether you’re benchmarking against criteria from the Global Reporting Initiative, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, the Carbon Disclosure Project or another framework, there’s plenty of room to tell your story in a way that resonates. Back to my earlier car example: Car ads tell us gas mileage and price while also showing us happy drivers in a safe, fun, awe-inspiring environment. Facts and feelings.
That doesn’t mean your report should be PR spin. Instead, use it to talk about your people, your purpose as a company, your outcomes and future goals. Show stakeholders and curious readers how your company impacts their lives for the better.
Give your readers a reason to care. Share the stats, the metrics, the data, absolutely. But also? Show your real-world impact.
Balance photos of your products and assets with images of the people who do the work. Humans are hardwired for story. Telling your story and sharing the proof points of how you’ve achieved record safety performance, increased diversity and inclusion, or grown profits helps people connect with your company. Their emotional reaction makes you memorable. Investors feel better about betting on your success; employees are proud of the company they work for; the people you want to hire have a better sense of how your corporate vision and values influence everything you do.
So as you’re reviewing this year’s report and planning for what you’ll do next year, take the time to think about whether what you did this year helped people connect with your company. Data is important to ratings agencies and enlightening to stakeholders, but an engaging, honest narrative gets people to hop into the front seat of the car and come along for the ride.
by Katherine Brennecke