Guest Post: The Iceberg, Not the Sailboat

Jun 6, 2013 12:00 PM ET

Sustainability reporting is harder than it looks. Companies new to reporting often pick up the reports of competitors, suppliers, or customers and think, “Well, that’s not rocket science. We already have a corporate brochure and a website. We’ll just add some ‘sustainability facts’ to that stuff and we’re good to go.”

Then they produce a report that looks like a corporate brochure mashed up with a website and a data dump, and they wonder why no one is impressed.

The reality is that good sustainability reports are icebergs: you can’t see three-fourths of what goes into them until you get up close and dive beneath the surface. Corporate brochures and websites are more like sailboats: big profile above the waterline and not much below it.

That’s why we tend to skim websites and corporate brochures: we know from experience not to expect depth. A sustainability report with a shallow approach is not likely to win converts to the company that produced it.

So how do you produce the iceberg instead of the sailboat? Here are five fundamentals that can give you the depth and impact you want.

1. Take a multi-year approach.
Sustainability reporting is too hard to learn in one or two years. Even super-efficient companies need a years to build in the data-gathering and fact-checking processes that good reporting requires. Each report you do teaches you a ton about how to do the next one. Even if you’ve been reporting for a while and want to jump to a new level, that will take time.

So plot out at least three years of development, starting with the disclosures and stakeholders you think you can include now and ending with a target list that really pushes the envelope. Experienced agencies can give you a huge assist with this planning, particularly about which fruit is hanging low and which fruit only looks that way.

2. Prepare for resistance.
Corporate cultures tend to be conservative in the original sense, meaning they hold on to what they have. People who own data resist disclosing it – even when they’re already required to file it with the government and henceforth the people of the nation. It just feels wrong to people, like giving something away for nothing. This is especially true when you ask your company to voluntarily disclose in areas that don’t have budget behind them to push performance, such as addressing climate change.

When reports are shallow, this if often the reason: no one wants to own weak results, so those get edited out and the report itself is weak – or it verges on greenwashing. Prepare for resistance by marshaling support from key influencers, and getting explicit agreement to drop their names with people who block you. Savvy reporting agencies have seen resistance and have overcome it before, so ask for tips and tactics.

3. Focus on process as much as product.
The 75% of a sustainability report you don’t see is all the processes that created it. Good reporters have built robust processes for setting strategy, gathering information, building consensus, reviewing content, and more. These are essential, and not easy to crank up out of nothing.

The good news is that all companies have processes that work well. It doesn’t matter if they are democratic or autocratic; great sustainability reports come out of both. Figure out which type of process works at your company and copy it. If nothing happens without a management champion, get one. If skunkworks are where cool new things happen, start one.

4. Cherish transparency.
The whole point of sustainability reporting is for society to see and understand the social and environmental costs of corporate profit-making. Then we can reduce them intelligently. This process is the only way we’re going to save the planet without holding back standards of living for billions of people. Getting there is pretty much impossible without the transparent reporting of what is really going on.

So cherish transparency in your processes and your product. Commit to GRI or some other third-party disclosure program if you can. (You don’t have to fulfill the whole program to participate; build it into your multi-year strategy.) Don’t be afraid to disclose dirty laundry, even if it makes you cringe. Next year you’re going to do better, and then even better the year after that. Reporting has this effect on companies. They hate to look bad in public. So the story is about improving, not being bad. Before too long, you won’t look bad at all. The story will be how you’ve transformed the company and have become a model for others to follow.

5. Tell stories.
It’s funny how often even A+ reporters forget about this. Probably they are so determined to be transparent and responsible that they forget about human nature. Still, nothing beats a compelling story for making a point that people remember. And don’t assume engineers and other geeks are immune. Often it’s the opposite: they are dying for someone to tell a killer story about their carbon dioxide equivalencies or DART injury statistics.

Make your report human, inspiring, even amusing if you can. The reason we report is to make sustainability mainstream, not fringe. So it has to appeal to us like other vital aspects of mainstream culture, like books and movies.

There are plenty of other principles like these for launching or stepping up a sustainability reporting program. The best way to learn about them is from people with extensive reporting experience. They’ll be transparent about their successes and failures, they’ll laugh about the resistance they’ve faced, and they’ll tell you some great stories. But don’t wait multiple years to start: your planet needs you to get rockin’ now.

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