CBSR Blog: Adding Value to Your Next CSR Report

Jan 31, 2012 10:00 AM ET

CBSR Blog: Adding Value to Your Next CSR Report

By: Agnieszka Rum

Last week, together with Wes Gee from Stantec and Sonya Fiorini from Loblaw, CBSR delivered a well attended webinar on sustainability reporting. Reflecting on the discussions from the webinar, I would like to emphasize some key points that aim to help businesses on their sustainability reporting journey.

Material issues are those that reflect core impacts and priorities of a company. Applying the concept of materiality leads to a more focused and concise report that clearly articulates business priorities, emphasizing those that are truly important. These priorities are substantiated by valid reasoning describing why the key issues are selected and how. In a business context, an issue is material if it would motivate investing or divesting in a company. In a sustainability context, this applies to areas of most impact, and issues that would cause a tarnished image, or a stakeholder to engage or disengage with a given business. In other words, material issues would be those of importance to stakeholders. Identifying material areas to focus and report on should be reached through an internal consensus on strategic priorities (e.g. through a workshop consisting of the senior leadership team). Once that is achieved, external stakeholders could be consulted to provide input or validate those priorities. The issues that share intersections between stakeholder and business priorities are likely where a report should focus.

Stakeholder inclusiveness
Some form of stakeholder engagement helps a reporter define issues that would resonate externally, provides additional insight on what matters from an objective perspective, and increases the credibility of the report. After all, a business’ stakeholders represent the audience that is more likely to read the report, so why not cater to this group? Ultimately, understanding stakeholder expectations helps a company produce a report that responds to stakeholder interests – gaining traction.
Another valuable application of stakeholder engagement is to solicit input on an already published report and use the feedback to introduce improvements in the next reporting cycle. It is important to describe the process behind such an engagement, stakeholder concerns that were raised and how your report will address such going forward. Looping back with stakeholders should not be overlooked – it is important to communicate back to stakeholders on how their input is taken into account. 
Transparency on performance and balance
Don’t hesitate to be open and honest about your challenges and performance gaps. A report is more likely to resonate with stakeholders where there is full transparency, rather than omitting material issues because of declining performance. An explanation should accompany any major performance gaps, followed by an action plan for improvement. Stakeholders understand that a sustainability strategy is a ‘work in progress’ and are generally accepting of target misses for valid reasons. Such openness or “balance” as referred to by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is what distinguishes a sustainability report from a mere “PR” document.

Articulate long-term approach
Describing a long-term strategy can be challenging, however, if your company takes sustainability seriously, it is advisable to internally agree on long-term priorities and objectives. Having a clear picture of a sustainability roadmap internally enables a reporter to communicate it more effectively externally. As many of the challenges facing us – whether population dynamics, resource scarcity, global warming or social inequities – a sustainability strategy should be focused on long-term business and societal challenges. The duration of the goals of course depends on the issue and operating context. For example, extractives should think past the closure phase, heavy emitters about long-term emission impacts and regulatory changes, while food retailers should consider long-term implications of water scarcity and drought in regions of sourcing. Readers want to be assured that the reporting business is part of the equation with society in addressing a given challenge – through a long-term approach.
Creative engagement
Despite the effort allocated to publishing a sustainability report, reporters are aware that readership remains low. How can you engage readers through more creative or ‘outside the box’ solutions? We are noticing a trend in the use of multi-media to communicate sustainability. Some companies have started online chats with stakeholders, as well as learning events involving third parties such as in-person panels and Q&A. Also, manufacturers and retailers sometimes take the opportunity to communicate an interesting piece of sustainability performance information on products (as we see at MEC, Loblaw or Whole Foods). To provide flexibility, a one or two-page summary of performance may be just enough to engage readers who are less likely to read an entire report. Keep in mind the value of exposure – the more exposure the more readers. 
Creating a concise and focused report is more likely to resonate with stakeholders than a colossal account of your sustainability performance and initiatives. A concise report is more effective in articulating your priorities in a penetrable way. Limiting your scope and reaching for quality vs. quantity of reported information should not be overlooked.
A Final word on reporting
Keep in mind that building a sustainability report is always a ‘work in progress’ or ‘journey’. Leverage the experiences learned from every reporting cycle to drive continuous improvement among your team and the report itself.
Finally, take the effort to articulate your strategy in your report, supported by a storyline: what are your priorities and why, where will your roadmap take you, and how you will get there.


About the Author:

Agnieszka Rum - CSR Advisor, CBSR
Based in the Toronto office, Agnieszka Rum is a CSR Advisor with a broad range of sustainability consulting experience specializing in sustainability reporting and strategy. She recently achieved the GRI Certified Training Course certification through an accredited GRI training partner. Agnieszka advised several clients from various sectors on developing sustainability reports in accordance with the GRI G3 global reporting standard, performed sustainability assessments and developed strategic recommendations for European and Canadian clients. Prior to joining CBSR, Agnieszka was a Sustainable Business Solutions consultant within the advisory practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Europe. Before that, Agnieszka was an Environmental Advisor with the Economic Affairs Division of the Netherlands Consulate-General in Toronto, where she advised businesses in the environmental technology sector on investment and partnership opportunities, environmental legislation, and economic trends in Canada.

Agnieszka has a Master of Science degree from the International Industrial Institute for Environmental Economics at Lund University in Sweden. With a particular interest in environmental sustainability, Agnieszka authored several articles on sector-wide sustainability risks and opportunities, climate change, and co-authored a publication on environmental sustainability guidelines with several other European business representatives.


Attend the next CBSR webinar:
Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Communications: Engaging with Impact to gain ideas and tools that will help you move your communications with stakeholders, employees and customers from awareness to engagement. Learn more and register!