The sun is shining, the birds are singing and this year’s sustainability reports are coming out. Sustainability reporters across the world can breathe an all-too-brief sigh of relief, catch up on some of the holiday they’ve not been able to take and start to plan for the next cycle. All is good with the world. Or is it?
We've reviewed a lot of published corporate responsibility reports recently and, to be honest, there are still issues. While many of these reports are superb, some of them are mediocre. One or two are downright poor.
As you turn your mind to next year’s reporting, here’s a handy guide to ruining an otherwise perfectly good report.
The bigger the better
Probably the most common crime against communication. Report length is coming down year-on-year but some businesses - even otherwise great communicators - still insist on including everything but the kitchen sink in what they disclose in the sustainability, CR or CSR space; often driven by a single-minded focus on the benchmark tables. If you want to make sure nobody – not even your fellow sustainability professionals – reads your content, publish a sustainability report with a three-figure page count. Preferably make it really dense and text-heavy too and avoid case studies, graphics, and white space while you’re at it.
Or if you want to do things properly: If you want something people may actually consider reading, try a tight, material, business-relevant summary and, if you need a repository for all the other disclosure, have a supplementary download and/or reference other sources in a short table for UN Global Compact, GRI etc.
Use jargon and acronyms. A lot.
Sustainability loves TLAs (‘three letter acronyms’). They (very slightly) reduce copy and, more importantly, superficially make us sound clever. The drastic reduction in comprehension and reach beyond specialists is a small price to pay. Why simply set an audacious goal when you can mobilise around a BHAG*?
Or if you want to do things properly: Unless an acronym is readily understood by a mainstream audience, spell it out. VAT is fine. GHGs is usually unnecessary. If you can avoid the jargon entirely and speak plain English, all the better. An audacious goal is a very powerful tool - call it something aspirational, simple and meaningful, like Nike’s moonshot to double its business with half the impact or Interface’s Mission Zero to eliminate negative environmental impacts.
Stuff it with generic CSR indicators
There are basic expectations of a sustainability report – it will disclose greenhouse gas emissions; it will discuss diversity representation. But beyond universally expected basics, every business needs to consider what’s important. For a truly terrible report, try to include as many non-material metrics as possible and few genuinely material ones. For a bank, an in-depth breakdown of nitrous oxide and methane emissions to air will fit the bill nicely, especially if combined with very limited coverage of lending risk. Conversely, a heavy industrial firm should avoid environmental and safety KPIs but major on charitable donations.
Or if you want to do things properly: Use your materiality review, stakeholder insight, and best practice to understand the metrics that matter. Consider a standalone data pack or stakeholder specific downloads if you need somewhere for information that is needed by specific but limited audiences.
Ignore the UN Sustainable Development Goals
Businesses are still getting to grips with how best to support the Sustainable Development Goals and what it means for their reporting and business models but most sustainability leaders include at least a reference. Some are reporting impacts and targets against specific goals. Others are simply referencing them and reviewing their approach to understand their relevance and impact. For a weaker report simply omit any reference to them.
Or if you want to do things properly: Understand which goals are relevant for your business, adopt targets which drive specific, material, impactful progress against them then report transparently and with clear metrics.
Only talk about beneficial impacts and use comparatives misleadingly
Even superb businesses are guilty of tipping the balance in favour of where they’re doing well. So if you want a report to stand out as a shining example of corporate puffery and greenwash you’ll need to excise any discussion of negative impacts (bonus points if there was a public failing you don’t sufficiently address like a Serious Fraud Office probe or a fine from a regulator), change the metrics every year (delete bad ones and choose selective baselines if needed) and use comparatives to hide poor performance (added a new female Non-Exec to take the total to two? Why not present this as a focus on gender diversity at Board level that has driven an increase of around 100% in female representation over the course of the year?)
Or if you want to do things properly: Be broadly consistent from year to year about what and how you report. Include absolute figures for transparency alongside trend and normalised data for context. Explain (not excuse) unexpected trends. Above all, ask yourself whether your report gives a credible, fair and balanced account of your activity.
Include stock photos of paper cut-outs holding hands
Stock images are useful tools when used judiciously; they can often convey a thought or impression far faster than text alone. Indeed, you’ll see them on everything from corporate reports to BBC news articles to press ads. But some thought needs to go into them. To give the impression you really don’t care about your reporting, the first port of call should be a paper chain of stick figures holding hands.
Or if you want to do things properly: Source (or commission) real photography of your own people, customers, projects, and sites. Where you need to use stock photography, think carefully about what it’s saying and avoid, where possible, clichés.
Hopefully, we have triggered some thoughts as you turn to this year’s reporting. Have we got anything wrong? Have we missed some howlers? Do you want to be one of the businesses that steps beyond mere reporting and actually tries to communicate? We would love to hear from you, good or bad. Contact Ian or any of our global team who will be more than happy to help.
*BHAG stands for ‘big, hairy, audacious goal’ a highly insightful concept from business guru Jim Collins which describes how visionary companies use massively stretching but just barely achievable goals as a focal point for exceptional progress. In its long form, it’s dazzling in its simplicity. In acronym form it’s meaningless. Even the great man himself falls prey to the acronym’s siren charm. In his seminal bestseller, Built to Last, he writes; “Highly visionary companies often use bold missions – or what we prefer to call BHAGs (pronounced bee-hag, short for ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goals’)”.
Why on earth would one prefer to call it a BHAG? Still less, why does it need a pronunciation guide?