It’s Time to Communicate Beyond the Sustainability Report: 4 Lessons from Our Brainfood Webinar

How your organization decides to communicate and engage around its sustainability efforts may center on the sustainability report, but it’s also a building block for other opportunities to engage stakeholders.

Sustainability reporting and communication is not one size fits all – that was a clear takeaway from our recent Brainfood webinar on communicating beyond the sustainability report. How your organization decides to communicate and engage around its sustainability efforts may center on the sustainability report, but it’s also a building block for other opportunities to engage stakeholders. Our panelists shared ideas for how their companies are fostering ongoing conversations about their sustainability journey with customers, investors and employees year-round.

Below are four lessons you could apply at your own organization:

1. Think of your sustainability reporting journey as three prongs: compliance, engagement and strategy.

This was a great mindset shared by one of our panelists.

Compliance is one of the primary reasons companies report on sustainability, providing the data that is needed by investors or required by regulatory bodies.

Engagement is the opportunity to expand on the details of your sustainability story that may be needed by a variety of audiences to serve them and your organization. This could be capitalizing on product-specific opportunities or sharing greater transparency to address reputational risks. It may require additional mediums and methods of engagement. Those interactions should also empower you to better understand what your stakeholders care about to inform your strategy in the future.

Strategy is the business transformation that comes when your company incorporates sustainability fully into the business to understand, pursue or manage sustainability-related opportunities and risks. Communicating your sustainability strategy and processes to stakeholders showcases your proactivity and management of the opportunities and risks. And for employees, it helps them understand the role of sustainability in the business’ success and their part to play.

Companies should be leveraging sustainability reporting and ongoing communications to address all three priorities.

2. Adapt your sustainability content to best meet each type of stakeholder.

Many companies are finding that their sustainability reports have gotten longer as stakeholders and new frameworks ask for more information. The comprehensive report provides a good one-stop shop that can serve as the foundation of your reporting. But, it’s also time to think about a system of different reports, materials and mediums that better fit each of your stakeholders.

Our panelists have launched alternative communications targeted specifically to audience needs, such as a shorter investor-focused presentation that features just the main information investors need. Another panelist’s company developed in-depth supplemental reports on specific products so they could dive into deeper detail about topics that could only be briefly covered in the sustainability report, but for which they were receiving many questions. Yet another noted the company does a comprehensive report every other year, with a brief update for the year in between. This cadence better fits the company’s sustainability goals and available resources for reporting, but still serves their stakeholders with transparent updates.

The panel all agreed on the importance of asking stakeholders what they want to know (a process also known as materiality). For example, some investors are very sophisticated in this space, so their input can enable you to focus on the topics and communications that will be most helpful to them.

3. Bring your employees along on your sustainability journey.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing sustainability communications on external stakeholders, but your own employees are one of the most important audiences.

As one panelist reminded us, if the organization doesn’t make progress there is nothing to report – and your employees are the ones driving progress. Drive culture changes by helping employees understand how their individual roles support the company’s sustainability goals and showing that sustainability initiatives benefit the company by saving costs, achieving efficiencies or making work safer. One panelist shared how the company created a specific return on investment (ROI) framework to help with internal decision making on sustainability-related projects. Another idea is to create employee training on how your company defines sustainability and its benefit to the company.

The sustainability report can be a tool to support this internal culture shift, as well as recruit your future workforce. Complement the detailed data and disclosures with case studies, photography and other content that helps employees see themselves and their impact. Many prospective employees review a company’s sustainability report during the interview process, as one panelist noted, so this added color can also help when it comes to recruitment.

4. Don’t strive for perfection – strive for progress.

Let’s face it, sustainability reporting can be daunting. It’s time and resource intensive. It requires collaboration across the company to build the systems needed to collect and analyze data. One of the companies represented on the panel is fairly new to sustainability reporting, and recounted their apprehension around getting started. Ultimately, they determined that they would start reporting with what environmental and employee data that could accurately collect, and added more over time as they built out internal processes to support data collection. Stakeholders were receptive to this approach.

Another great idea that surfaced is the concept of a “dry-run.” All three panel companies have used this model to prepare for new reporting frameworks or ratings agency assessments. By compiling practice reports or going through the ratings questionnaire, they are able to expose any gaps that the company needs to shore up before officially reporting, as well as assess the time and resources needed to adhere to the framework. A dry-run on data assurance is another useful exercise to uncover what data and processes need more attention before you officially submit for assurance.

As a wrap-up, here are some quote-worthy reminders from our panelists:

  • Sustainability reporting is not about being perfect. It’s about being transparent and getting a little better every year.
  • Sustainability reporting is often about doing a better job of showing what we are already doing, not about doing something differently.
  • The sustainability report is not something we do aside from the business – it is part of the business.
  • Stop admiring a problem – dig in and keep moving forward.

Now is a great time to consider what else your company could be doing to further its sustainability and transparency efforts in ways that keep customers buying, shareholders informed, and employees and communities engaged. Our team loves strategizing about how to best communicate your sustainability efforts – reach out to Andrea Shea, VP and lead of our sustainability practice, to start the conversation!

Special thanks to our panelists for sharing their expertise:

Jennifer Rataj, Director, Corporate Communications at Fortune Brands Innovations

Zachary Robock, Senior Corporate Counsel at Nordson Corporation

Tomás Zaborowski, Global Head of Sustainability Excellence, Bayer Crop Science

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