How can companies turn detailed sustainability reporting into meaningful communication?

Reporting on sustainability doesn’t come cheap. According to a 2011 study by the Centre for Strategy & Evaluation Services, European companies can pay up to €604,000 (£517,000) to produce a comprehensive sustainability report.

But sustainability reporting can generate a treasure trove of information about a company’s operational activities, and from this a narrative can emerge. Peter Knight, president of sustainability consultancy Context (and an Ethical Corporation columnist), says: “There is reporting, and then there is communication of the stories that are embedded in the report.”

Sustainability reporting is only truly valuable if it is a basis for these stories, Knight argues. A “formulaic, process-driven” approach, as promoted by frameworks such as the Global Reporting Initiative, is useful for some investors and environmental campaigners that want to see the detail of a company’s sustainability performance, but this is essentially preaching to the converted. It is less relevant for broader audiences.

“A data-driven disclosure document is a terrible form of communication because it doesn’t really tell the corporate narrative,” Knight says. “But it contains all those major elements that some people want to know about.”

In particular, if a company’s sustainability strategy is in part based on driving behavioural change in employees and consumers – for example, the efforts of Unilever to reduce the water consumption of its customers – tailored sustainability messages are vital, and will ultimately help companies meet their own sustainability targets.

Knight advocates sustainability reporting via a “boring document”. He says: “Don’t spend any money on designing it; let it look as though it is produced on an old IBM golfball typewriter. Spend your energy taking the information from that and developing it into storytelling.”

Big ideas

Lucy Shea, chief executive of sustainability communications consultancy Futerra, says the first step in drawing out stories from a mass of data should be to identify a big idea.

Some of the most prominent sustainability campaigns clearly do this. Sainsbury’s has the 20x20 plan (20 commitments to be achieved by 2020). Marks & Spencer has Plan A. Kingfisher – owner of B&Q among other brands – has Net Positive.

The big idea “provides the umbrella under which a company can hook its strategy,” says Shea. It can “help their consumers live more sustainable lifestyles”. It can be the basis for individual initiatives, such as the Marks & Spencer Big Beach Clean-Up, a week-long event during which the company partners with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) to engage volunteers to clear litter from beaches. Volunteers that register with the MCS receive Marks & Spencer vouchers.

However, big ideas have to be well thought-through and grounded in what the company actually does, and can prove. A misplaced big idea “can come across as hubristic” or can be “massive greenwash if it is not material and is not connected to consumers”, Shea says.

BP’s Beyond Petroleum campaign is one example of sustainability miscommunication. It came to be seen as hollow because BP’s fundamental business model did not change – it has not moved beyond petroleum. It was also compromised by the company’s operational failings, not least the disastrous 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

BP “completely mucked it up by having a terrible health and safety record”, says Shea. “There are plenty of ways to go wrong. If you’re going to go big, you need to be credible.”

Peter Knight says sustainability reports might be boring, but they are essential to demonstrate that sustainability communications are not merely spin. A company should only make sustainability claims if “the proof points are sitting in the boring document”, he says. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Be authentic

Robust authenticity of sustainability communications is even more important, of course, in the age of social media and creative NGO campaigning.

NGOs have “stolen a march” on companies in communicating about sustainability, Lucy Shea says. However, “they do peddle doom and fear”. Companies can counterbalance this by making sustainability a “positive and aspirational message”.

NGOs such as Greenpeace successfully blog, use Twitter and upload videos to YouTube to convey their messages and put pressure on unsustainable companies. On the communication front, Greenpeace comprehensively outmanoeuvred Indonesian giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) over its destructive logging in tropical forests. Greenpeace publicly shamed APP clients into cutting their ties with the paper company. Ultimately, as Ethical Corporation has covered extensively, APP abandoned its defensive position, apologised and said it would work with and not against Greenpeace on deforestation.

Dax Lovegrove, head of sustainable business and innovation at WWF, says this kind of learning from NGOs is the only way ahead if companies’ big ideas on sustainability are to be authentic. Of Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, for example, he says: “It is a very well respected plan built on the back of years of consultation with NGOs.”

There is widespread cynicism about corporate sustainability efforts, Lovegrove warns. But “credible communications comes with credible actions”. Leading companies in a number of sectors have realised this, and WWF is happy to endorse their efforts. Lovegrove cites brands such as H&M and Ikea. “We’re comfortable that these companies are stepping up.” In any case, greenwashing simply does not work. “These myths are busted by NGOs and all kinds of other scrutiny that the digital age brings.”

Some sectors, particularly consumer goods, are moving ahead on authentic sustainability communications. But others have a mountain to climb. Sustainability for oil and gas companies “is very challenging because none of us really buy it”, Lovegrove says. For these companies, fundamental and far-reaching changes to their business models are needed, he adds.

Be positive

Many experts cite the Kingfisher Net Positive campaign as an effective example of sustainability communication.

Visitors to the Net Positive website can download sustainability data and reports if they want to, and the website includes handy graphs showing Kingfisher’s performance in key areas, from investment in communities to the proportion of waste recycled. But the starting point is the big idea – explained via video by chief executive Ian Cheshire – and Kingfisher’s four main themes of timber, energy, innovation and communities.

Nick Folland, Kingfisher’s group corporate affairs director for Net Positive, says that in each of these areas, the company’s aim is to put back more than it takes out. For example: “Net Positive on timber means not just preventing deforestation, but working towards net reforestation. In energy, it means helping create homes that go beyond zero carbon to become generators of their own energy.”

Folland adds: “Both internal and external communication and collaboration are key to us achieving our ambitions.” Internal communication is needed to ensure that everyone in the company contributes to Net Positive, while through its external communications, Kingfisher wants to bring customers on board.

The company is taking steps to dissolve the barrier between the internal and external audiences. During 2013, it will hold four “Net Positive conversations”, one on each of its sustainability themes. These will involve a “mixed audience of internal and external people with whom we can debate our ideas”, Folland says.

The initiative is an example of two-way communication, which should help Kingfisher to ensure that Net Positive takes into account a wider set of views and is not just a top-down marketing campaign. “We’re on a long journey of discovery,” Folland says. “We don’t pretend to have all the answers or to think we can achieve our ambitions alone.”

communications  Stephen Gardner  sustainability reporting 

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