Companies make significant investments in sustainability reporting. For example, read a blog by De Beers where they brilliantly described all the hard work behind production of the 56-page Report to Society.
When asked how they measure returns on these investments in terms of stakeholder engagement, companies usually cite the number of report downloads or printed copies, awards, and feedback from select management, analysts and experts.
While there should be better metrics, I believe that companies can do much more to inform, engage and excite stakeholders by using the report as a starting point. The potential impact would be better decisions leading to improved sustainability and financial outcomes or, in other words, value creation.
Engaging key stakeholder
You are lucky if your management are fully committed to sustainability. If it is not the case, you can use a materiality process to engage your leaders. For example, you can ask them to link sustainability issues to value levers, like Accenture did for the FMCG sector. This would help them to reflect on the strategic value of sustainability.
You could also equip your management with a summary document like Unilever’s one. This could help them better articulate progress and focus areas to both internal and external audiences.
Investors and analysts
A recent EY survey suggests that investors tend to use annual reports as a primary source of sustainability information. This makes ensuring consistency across both documents a key objective.
Investors also rely on analysts who examine all kinds of publicly-available information in search for ESG data. To make these analysts’ lives easier, you could follow BP’s example in publishing ESG spreadsheets.
You may wish to initiate a conversation with IR colleagues on how sustainability messages could support the investment presentation, and translate this into speaking points for senior management at your AGM.
You have only one chance to make a first good impression. Why not to hand out a sustainability report to every new recruit as part of your induction process?
As employees tend to trust their peers more than their leaders, you could publish their perspectives on the company’s sustainability performance in the report and on the corporate website.
If you have an employee recognition or innovation programme, you can use the report to showcase responsible behaviours or best practices, thereby fostering healthy competition among your workforce.
As Nielsen’s analysis demonstrates, global consumers are ready to pay more for sustainability. You can follow the footsteps of The HEINEKEN Company and H&M that have created artistic videos promoting reports or raising awareness on specific sustainability issues.
The challenge however is to help customers make ethical decisions at the point of sale. For example, at the supermarket of the future at Expo 2015 in Milan, you could see carbon footprints for every product you touched. This scenario is not possible without robust reporting systems.
Many companies have internal research functions that produce publications on sustainability. The report itself, alongside the corporate website, could be used to promote existing thought leadership. See Barclays’ website as an example of best practice.
At the same time, you could launch a series of publications exploring the material issues discussed in the report. That’s something what DS Smith did this year after the launch of the report.
Leveraging other channels
According to Black Sun’s research, 97% of FTSE 100 companies carry sustainability content from the annual report through to the corporate website.
Although while directly lifting content on management approach is reasonable, dry performance tables might not be engaging enough for audiences such as prospective employee and customers.
Individual stakeholders are normally more interested in the bigger picture with regard to sustainability and examples of the company’s ethical behaviour. That’s why you should also consider publishing ‘live’ performance content, such as case studies and videos. Some example we like include Rio Tinto and De Beers.
You can pull performance facts and stakeholder quotes from the report and occasionally share them on LinkedIn and Twitter, also linking the report itself. A good example is Kingfisher that mix sustainability posts with other content, for instance on ongoing events.
You can use almost any object to communicate on sustainability. Why not to decorate your offices with your SDGs of choice, sustainability commitments and social benefits of your goods and services? I have seen examples of this from Taylor Wimpey and Compass Group.
You can also place your sustainability messages on screensavers, stationary and computer bags. The sky is the limit! Stakeholders should not only read your sustainability story, but also see, feel and even touch it.
In sum, to drive engagement, you need to be able to effectively leverage the sustainability report by repurposing and rechanneling its content for key audiences.