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Reasons Not to Publish a Sustainability Report (At Least Not Yet)

I love sustainability reports. At my company, we think they are a critical aspect of a company’s sustainability strategy, useful for looking back and measuring progress as well as a tool for future planning.

That doesn’t mean your company should jump on the sustainability reporting bandwagon, however. In fact, there are several really good reasons not to produce a sustainability report (at least, not yet).

1. You’re really looking for a marketing “puff piece.”

While it’s true that sustainability reports can (and should) talk about all the good things that your organization is doing, the reality is that a sustainability report needs to be a complete and accurate reflection of what you are doing right and wrong.

For each topic that you tackle, plan to cover the challenges and opportunities that you face. And make sure that you’re including all the topics that your stakeholders care about — not just the ones where you shine. A report that makes you look 100 percent “right” on sustainability is going to raise red flags — and potentially unleash stakeholder backlash. The reports that really resonate with readers are the ones that are transparent and honest — especially when they include a frank discussion about issues where you struggle. Honest and agile — it goes a lot further than a little too squeaky clean.

2. You have a lot to say, but you can’t back up your claims with data.

Before you start talking about your great energy efficiency initiatives, or your amazing employee diversity programs, or your robust product health and safety, please make sure that you have the metrics to back it up. Unfortunately, greenwashing allegations can plague the green marketing efforts of both the best and the worst of companies. One of the best ways to avoid this is to ensure you have the data to back up any and all claims, and that it is consistently tracked over time. The proof is in the pudding; sooner or later, data is necessary to confirm a company’s sustainability efforts.

It’s worth delaying your sustainability report for months (or even a year) in order to get the right data collection and analysis systems in place. Remember — you’ll be reporting on the same metrics year after year, so it’s worth getting it right the first time out of the gate.

3. You don’t have a cross-functional team ready to devote significant time and effort to the process.

No matter how enthusiastic you are, you cannot produce a sustainability report by yourself. (At least, not a good one.) Different departments will have different data, and you’ll need someone who is great at seeing the big picture, someone who is obsessive about the details, someone who understands the data, and someone who is a great copy editor.

Take some time to get buy-in from the team you’ll be relying on — make sure that they understand what’s being expected of them, the timeline you’re proposing, and the effort they can anticipate putting forth.

Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model. She tweets at @jenniferwoofter. This article was reprinted with permission from Strategic Sustainability Consulting. If you’d like to speak with someone on our team about the process of writing a sustainability report, please contact us for a complimentary consultation.

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2 thoughts on “Reasons Not to Publish a Sustainability Report (At Least Not Yet)

  1. This is a great article and it highlights what is going on in social media, as well. More and more people want honesty and transparency. Unless your business plan includes becoming obsolete, it’s best to hop on board the train to a more sustainable and just future.

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