For more than a decade now, many leading global organizations have produced some form of sustainability reporting. Sometimes these documents manifest in reports sent directly to stakeholders, and in other cases they adhere to specific guidelines defined by external reporting or sometimes regulatory bodies.
It’s not easy to produce these reports. Sustainability reporting takes a lot of internal information gathering, then corresponding collected data to the key requirements of reporting bodies like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), for example, and then developing actual reports—not to mention the task of finding out how to derive value from the very process of producing sustainability reports.
Sometimes organizations get so swept up in feeling they need to engage in sustainability reporting that they forget why they produce these reports in the first place. In many cases it comes down to the matter of “everyone else is doing it, so why don’t we?” But in the face of this question, internal sponsors and critics of reporting initiatives tend to wonder, quite understandably, where the actual value in sustainability reporting lies.
There are Different Conceptions of ‘Sustainability Reports’
Let’s be clear: There is a difference between simply producing sustainability reports to stakeholders and producing sustainability reports that align with key guidelines set out by official third-party reporting bodies. Whether reports are internally guided or more aligned with established external frameworks like GRI or, in some cases, regulatory requirements, there’s an under-acknowledged gulf when it comes to how we conceive of the kinds of reporting we produce.
Sometimes an organization might produce a glossy report describing its sustainability accomplishments on its own terms. Sometimes it may produce a similar report that meets GRI or equivalent “certification” or other third-party guidelines. But in general these reports tend to describe one organization’s account of its own supposed sustainability successes, as opposed to delineating, from a metrics-based perspective, how it is actually achieving progress from a sustainability standpoint.
In the first case, some organizations claim to produce sustainability reports without actually adhering to any standard. These reports often take the form of marketing-driven documents submitted to stakeholders and the public at large, and communicate self-professed progress and initiatives achieved by the reporting organization.
Criticisms leveled at such an approach have, quite reasonably, called out the fact that the reporting company is simply providing its own narrative of its own supposed progress. When that’s the case, clearly there’s a problem and it seems like a futile enterprise, except for the supposed (and intangible) gains in sentiment and brand perception achieved from stakeholders and the public.