5 things to Avoid in Sustainability Reports

By Nate Van Beilen, a student in the new Master of Science in Sustainability Management Program at the University of Toronto.


The purpose of developing a sustainability report is to communicate the environmental and social issues that your company engages with and what you’re doing about it. If done properly the outcome should be greater transparency and a perception that your company is acting responsibly. It sounds straight forward but many companies still miss some basic strategies for communicating their commitment to sustainability.

In terms of the big picture, the company must always strive to communicate a willingness to accept their shortcomings coupled with strong efforts to correct them. In some cases companies go beyond and communicate great leaps in actively making things better. But there are always a few who fail to capture some important details which are vital to the overall success of the report. Below is a list of  things to avoid in sustainability reports.

Avoid weak or non-existent target setting 

Sustainability reports need to highlight how a company plans to improve itself for the future. Setting goals shows that a company is committed to the future and intends to make improvements. Granted, goal setting can be difficult because it creates a certain level of accountability to ensure goals are met. That’s the point.

Large multinationals in the resource and energy sectors have an impressive ability to track data for dozens of key performance indicators. These companies have some of the largest environmental impacts, yet very few future targets are set. BP explains:

“A variety of factors – such as shifts in business activity, production or assets – can influence a company’s GHG emissions. This makes it difficult to establish an appropriate GHG target that can be cascaded throughout the organization with the objective of achieving cost-effective emission reductions. For these reasons, BP, like some of our peers, does not set enterprise-wide GHG targets.”

A lack of targets creates the impression that companies aren’t committed to changing and are opting instead for “business as usual”.

Difficulty is not a good enough reason to not set targets. A lack of targets creates the impression that companies like BP aren’t committed to changing and are opting instead for “business as usual”. The result is a report that lacks substance. Long term quantitative goals should set for a number of key performance indicators will add legitimacy to a report.

Avoid vague wording

What does more sustainable mean? If something is becoming more sustainable, it ultimately implies that it is not sustainable in the first place. If it was sustainable, then it would simply be noted as such. The point here is that calling something “more sustainable” is rather meaningless. It’s better to be transparent and explain how a product/service has improved using numbers.

Sustainability is complicated and vague wording will not suffice…avoid the phrase “more sustainable”.

Take IKEA for example. They say “all the cotton we use comes from more sustainable sources” and “50% of wood [comes] from more sustainable sources.” Both of these claims include a footnote to explain what “more sustainable” means, thankfully. Cotton and wood are sourced from companies certified by the Better Cotton Standard and Forest Stewardship Council respectively. These are two great organizations that are helping companies reduce the impacts of their supply chains. The report would be more transparent if it said 50% of wood is sourced from FSC certified sources and 100% of cotton is sourced from companies participating in the Better Cotton Initiative. 

Sustainability is complicated and vague wording will not suffice. Verification of your efforts are vital – avoid the phrase “more sustainable”.

Avoid identifying nature as a something to be controlled and conquered  

Sustainability is all about living within the limits of what the earth can provide. Humans and nature can coexist symbiotically – the notion of mutual benefit. Sustainability reports need to communicate that these kind of values are embraced. But some companies retain the antiquated perspective of nature as a nemesis – something that needs to be controlled and dominated. 

Take the following quote from Bayer’s case study entitled “Defying the Weather” in their 2015 annual report. “Farmers like us have only one boss, and that’s nature. Our work is dictated by the sun, the rain, the wind, the change of seasons. But in the past few years, nature has become a temperamental boss,” says Do Thi Tuyen, a rice farmer in the northern Vietnamese province of Ninh Binh “Bayer showed me how I can employ innovative technologies and growing techniques to defy nature.”

Defying nature is not part of any long term sustainability solution.

Innovative technologies and growing techniques are extremely important for food security and the services Bayer provides the world with are extremely valuable. But defying nature is not part of any long term sustainability solution. Skeptical readers of Bayer’s sustainability report may be put off by this type of language.

Avoid not giving any context

Numbers and data without any context are meaningless. But sometimes numbers are impressive by themselves. This can often lead to greenwashing, and the frustrating part of it is that it is completely avoidable if context is provided.

Numbers and data without any context are meaningless.

Take Enbridge for example. “$5 billion invested in renewable and alternative energy projects since 2002”. Enbridge proclaims this prominently in the 2015 at-a-glance performance stats in the CSR section of their annual report. $5 billion seems like a lot and might create the impression that Enbridge is committed to socially responsible investments. Perhaps that’s what Enbridge wants readers to think.

What does $5 billion in renewable and alternative energy really mean? It would be helpful to know what Enbridge defines as alternative energy. Readers should be provided with the total investments made by Enbridge between 2002 and 2015. It would also be helpful to know why 2002 is used as a baseline year. Providing context would make that $5 billion much more meaningful and useful.

Avoid claiming that your company is better than it is

Reports often open with a CEO message or letter that sets the tone for the report. But sometimes the tone is out of tune.

Newmont’s opening sentence in the report is the CEO’s message: “Newmont has been creating economic value and contributing to strong communities and healthy ecosystems for nearly 100 years.” Newmont has one of the best reports out of the mining sector but claims like this are extremely off-putting. A reader is not going to take the report seriously if a mining company is saying it contributes to healthy ecosystems. Mining is extractive and highly intrusive. In another section of their report, Newmont explains the total disturbed land not yet reclaimed totals 31,932 hectares.

The contradiction between claims and facts makes a report seem inconsistent.

MScSM_Web_Button_FINAL (1)Conclusion

Sustainability reports need to communicate meaningful and useful information. Effective reports don’t try to convince readers that a company is “more sustainable”. Effective reports set targets, provide context, communicate values and are consistent. By avoiding the above examples, readers will take your company more seriously.
Nate Van Beilen is a student in the new Master of Science in Sustainability Management Program at the University of Toronto.