How to write a great sustainability report
– an interview with Johan Säwensten
from Narva Communications
If we start simple – what are the most important points to have on your checklist for the sustainability report?
Significance – make sure your sustainability report really focuses on the sustainability areas that are most important to your organisation and your stakeholders. May sound obvious but is not always so unfortunately.
Looking ahead – make sure to make the sustainability report relevant by focusing on the business’s risks and opportunities going forward, and how your products and services can be part of a sustainable transition going forward. Finding a clear story about the company’s role makes both the company and the report much more interesting.
Credibility – try to adapt key figures to standards and industry practices to make the information comparable for investors and other stakeholders. Also make sure you have good processes and routines for collecting and consolidating data – and feel free to enlist the help of auditors to review. There is still a long way to go before the sustainability data is as reliable as the financial data, which of course requires external auditing.
For those who want to take their sustainability report further – what is the next step?
Begin to link sustainability work to financial impact and long-term value creation. This makes sustainability reporting even more relevant for both shareholders, investors and a wider audience. At the same time, it helps you to focus on the most important areas in sustainability work.
What are the most common mistakes that organisations make when making their sustainability report?
The most common is that you become too detailed in internal processes and how they developed during the year. This makes the report reactive and navel-gazing, which many external stakeholders are not particularly interested in.
Now I risk swearing in church, but another mistake is that many companies listen too much to their stakeholders when deciding on the content of the sustainability report. The risk is that the report is then perceived as anxious and that the impression is that the company does not really know what to focus on. I think you should turn the process around a bit and dare to stand for the sustainability areas you deem most important and report on these, and possibly supplement based on the views you receive from stakeholders.
We are experiencing a clearly increased focus on sustainability in brand work. How do you think organisations should balance the accounting and marketing perspective in a sustainability report?
Overall, I think it is good that you try to link your reporting to the overall brand work and positive messages, it makes you become more solution-oriented. With that said, at least parts of the report need to be just a report, in practical terms you can solve it through more communicative messages in digital withdrawals and in the report’s so-called front trailer – and more data and tables in a back trailer similar to financial reporting.
Greenwashing is a sad and well-known phenomenon. However, green-hushing is a little newer to us. Many organisations do a lot – but do not communicate it. Why do you think this is happening and how do you see the sustainability perspective in branding in general?
You should of course never paint green things that are not sustainable, I hope and believe that many still see through such things. But I also do not think that you should be overly afraid to communicate your journey towards sustainability, provided you have the goal clear to you. I believe that communication of exciting initiatives and projects has an important role in inspiring other people and business leaders to make tough decisions and dare to change. I have recently worked with prominent climate scientists who believe that he is much more positive about society’s ability to change now than he was just a year ago – he explains that the business community’s approach to climate change has largely shifted from a fight against regulations for a race to find new revenue. There are, of course, many components to such a reversal, but I truly believe that positive and inspiring sustainability communication plays an important role in challenging people’s perspectives on the present. The collective feeling that we are currently part of perhaps the greatest societal change since the industrial revolution, I believe, breeds even more sustainable innovations and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you were to highlight three examples of good sustainability reports – what would they be? What makes them so good?
Difficult question, a good sustainability report, I think is one that manages to convey a clear story at the same time as it meets the expectations of the outside world, so it depends quite a lot on which target groups you have and so on. But here are some favourites with us at Narva right now: