What is an annual sustainability report?
A CSR or sustainability report is a periodical, usually annual, report published by companies with the goal of sharing their corporate sustainability actions and results. Its purpose is to improve the transparency of the organization’s activities. From an internal perspective, it achieves accurate and insightful data to improve processes and have a positive impact. From an external perspective, it allows companies to communicate CSR goals and sustainable development.
Writing and publishing an annual sustainability report is a key factor in a company’s sustainability strategy. By means of active monitoring and reporting a company can track its progress towards targets and goals that align with its overall sustainability and company strategy. A report improves the effectiveness of a company’s monitoring system on sustainability performance, and integrates active decision making and taking corrective actions while managing risks and opportunities.
The benefits of a sustainability report
- It gains trust and improves relationships with both internal and external stakeholders by facilitating open communication that aligns with material issues that are identified as being key for your stakeholders;
- It enhances the reputation of how a company addresses sustainability and improves brand loyalty;
- It promotes internal operational efficiency and accountability which can lead to increased employee engagement;
- Lastly, it allows for communication on compliance to reporting regulations. Governments and regulators increasingly require or encourage companies to disclose sustainability information in their annual reports.
15 countries require some form of sustainability reporting from large companies, including South Africa, Singapore, New Zeeland, the UK, India, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Pakistan, the US, Malaysia, and Canada.
This article offers you a broad approach to an annual sustainability report. If you wish to learn more on the subject, you can download our eBook, A Comprehensive Guide To Sustainability Reporting, here, written by my colleague Felix Keser. Additionally, in 2020 I have hosted a webinar on Managing Performance: Sustainability Report, and beginning 2021 a webinar on Focusing on What Matters: Annual Sustainability Report Writing, both accessible here.
6 criteria of an effective sustainability report
The following are 6 key qualities every sustainability report should seek to adopt:
- Be aspirational yet action-oriented. It is about finding the right balance between intention, commitment through SMART targets, and measurement of impact is key.
- Be data-driven. The key lies in clearly identifying whether the organization is making progress in a reliable, accurate, and non-biased way.
- Communicate transparently and clearly. Report on the current efforts made and progress achieved without disregarding the negative impacts and challenges faced.
- Be consistent and comparable. Consistently reporting on efforts in relation to a benchmark is key and the reporting style should be in line with corporate reporting.
- Be authentic. Your report should reflect material issues, company values, and strategy. Being authentic will build trust, show alignment as well as commitment.
- Engage stakeholders. It is vital to engage and integrate stakeholder feedback to make your reporting complete, balanced, and create accountability.
How to choose a sustainability reporting framework?
Once you have identified what your sustainability report should achieve, the next question to ask is: Which reporting framework to choose? Sustainability is developing continuously and therefore there are a wide variety of reporting standards that have emerged over the past 20 years.
Selecting a framework depends on the scope of your report, your audience, the objectives, and purpose of the framework, and alignment between frameworks. Most importantly, the framework you select should fit your company’s needs and DNA. The following are two globally recognized standards:
- GRI standards – World’s most widely used standards for disclosing sustainability impacts on the key pillars of governance, environment, social, ethical, and supply chain. The GRI standards can even be mapped in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Ten Principles of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC). It is used by companies of all sizes and industries, from multinationals to SMEs and NGOs.
87% of sustainability reports referenced the GRI standards in 2019 (WBCSD, Reporting Matters)
- UNGC standards – A call to action for companies to fully integrate and align the Ten Guiding Principles into strategies, operations, and measurable outcomes. The Ten Guiding Principles address the key pillars of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption.
More than 11000 companies across 157 countries have produced over 73000 reports in the last 20 years.
3 tips to make sure your sustainability report is read
Once you have written and published your sustainability report, the question remains: Is my report being read, and is it reaching my target audience? The following are three tips to make sure your report is read by your stakeholders:
- Use multiple communication channels thoughtfully. Ensure the medium, content, and style are tailored to both the audience and the message being delivered. For example, to avoid reading long reports some stakeholders tend to read specific sections that are most valuable to them.
Use this insight to tailor specific areas of your report with the right medium. You could publish a press release, share across social channels, add success stories and case studies, or even host internal workshops.
- Ensure that what you report on speaks to your audience. When companies start writing an annual sustainability report the following question always pops-up: What exactly should I report on? Here is where the topic of materiality comes in. The assessment should identify what is material to your company as well as your stakeholders, only be reached if you actually speak to people from each stakeholder group.
- Be inspiring. Write your report in a way that speaks to your audience and engages them along the way. Follow a storyline that is captivating and inspiring to ensure readers will read your report from A to Z.
In my opinion, publishing an annual sustainability report is key in corporate governance. A report is relevant for all companies, not depending on size or industry. A CSR report makes sure that your sustainability issues are being communicated to the right stakeholders, creating greater transparency and therefore building trust and engagement.
What interests me most is if companies are transparent about their achievements but more importantly about what areas they still need to work on. Always remember, sustainability is an ever continuous journey for each and every one of us.