HAVE YOU ever been midway through the company’s annual sustainability report and thought: who on earth is going to read this? Well, perhaps you should. “I think we need to think harder about who our audiences are, and who we want them to be,” says Lucinda Hensman, associate director for corporate responsibility and sustainability communications at Coca-Cola Enterprises – aka the woman who writes the sustainability reports, the responses to investor questionnaires and the awards entries. “I’m in two minds about [the benefits of] sustainability reporting. I think we need to move on the 40-page reports to something more interactive that people want to read.”
Brave words, especially from a company that has won awards for its reporting on water, carbon and other sustainability issues. And, as Hensman argued at the recent Footprint Forum about sustainability reporting, it’ll take brave companies to move away from the Homeric epic reports that have become commonplace to “one-page factsheets and interactive websites”.
Her feelings chime with the findings of a report by the Two Tomorrows consultancy in November 2012, which concluded that companies are becoming too introspective. “Reporting standards since  have persuaded reporting companies to disclose management approaches, but the pendulum has now swung too far,” said the report’s author, Todd Cort, at the time. “In 2012, sustainability reporting has become an almost obligatory box-ticking exercise demanded by stakeholders.”
Hensman clearly has similar fears. But what do the accountants think? Tom Beagent, an adviser in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ sustainability and climate change team, often gets asked why businesses should do these reports, and what those who spend time doing them get out of it. “Reporting is a way of communicating,” he explains, “and for companies like Starbucks and Compass, these reports are about their brands, their supply chains, their products and so on.”
Beagent believes that more and more companies are using different channels to communicate the reports and their findings to different audiences. As with sustainability, there are the laggards and the pioneers.
McDonald’s is a business that, like Coca-Cola and Puma (which Beagent is involved with), has received acclaim for its transparent approach to reporting. “They’ve really picked up on the major issues and reported on them,” explained Rebecca Hawkins, a research and consultancy fellow at Oxford Brookes University’s school of hospitality management, during her Q&A session at the forum.
This includes areas such as health and nutrition, which can make uncomfortable reading for a company fuelled by sales of fast food. Indeed, reporting is not just about producing a shiny report for the press office or the website. Warts-and-all studies are expected, both by consumers and investors. Transparency can also help drive change within the value chain.
McDonald’s 2011 “sustainability scorecard” – incidentally published on a single page – showed the company had met just one of 13 goals. But that is nothing to be ashamed of; this is about reporting on progress and identifying areas for concern – from resource risks to legislative targets – often in the medium term.
“It’s OK not to know all the answers,” says Hensman. “Ultimately, sustainability is about getting people [staff and consumers] to do what they don’t necessarily want to do. You need to ensure what you produce is engaging, useful and can drive change – inside and outside the four walls of your business.”
Be sure: It’s expensive, so make sure you know why you are reporting Be brave: Don’t be afraid to make it a warts-and-all report
Be clear: 40 pages of dense copy won’t inspire customers Be innovative: use channels like your website to spotlight best practice
Be accurate: there have been plenty of howlers in reports, so dot the i’s and cross the t’s
Carpet manufacturer Interface is a great example of how to communicate sustainability to the masses. See: www.interfaceglobal.com