The Brutal Truth about Sustainability Reporting

In 2012, Jennifer Woofter wrote an article for CSRwire that we featured on our blog discussing some of the harsh truths about sustainability reporting. We thought this article was worth sharing again! Enjoy:

Last month, Strategic Sustainability Consulting (SSC) released its sixth annual Sustainability Report. That means we have published one report for every year that we've been in business. And once again, as cofounder and President, I was the author.

Committing to write an annual sustainability report is a little bit like spring-cleaning. You try to keep up with it throughout the year, but it's the once-a-year deep clean that really scours all the corners.

Much like spring-cleaning, few organizations eagerly anticipate the sustainability reporting process, and for good reason.

It's a bit of a nightmare.

Analyzing the data -- even with a great data management tool -- is a headache. Waiting for the stragglers to get their information back always takes longer than planned. I'm never happy with the first or second (or sometimes third) versions of the opening Letter from the President. Yet, I do it, and proudly stand by my company's commitment to devote the time and resources to an annual accounting of our sustainability performance. 

If your organization is dreading the approach of your sustainability-reporting season -- or wondering if committing to your first sustainability report is even worth it -- let me offer you a view from the trenches.

Sustainability Reporting: The Good News

Producing an annual sustainability report sends a powerful message to stakeholders about your commitment to environmental and social responsibility. Many companies talk about "going green," but the fact is that only a fraction of those organizations take the time to evaluate their performance and communicate it publicly. Those few, diligent companies get an instant credibility boost that only comes with putting your money where your mouth is.

Moreover, when done correctly, the annual sustainability reporting process can be an incredible strategic tool that helps you assess where the organization is today, determine tangible goals for the future, and chart a roadmap to get there. The steps necessary to producing a robust sustainability report are remarkably similar to developing a sustainability strategy -- so why not combine them and get more bang for your buck?

The Bad

Sustainability reporting is a time consuming process. From my experience in both writing our sustainability reports and helping clients produce their own, the entire process can take anywhere from six weeks to six months. Nothing about a Sustainability Report is simple or quick, from the data gathering to the CEO's Letter.

So make sure to schedule enough time -- and then double that to give you a cushion. I promise that you'll need it.

Equally important: don't listen to those software providers that promise to reduce time spent preparing a sustainability report by 90 percent. Software can make it easier to collect and aggregate data, but it doesn't -- and cannot -- effectively address the areas that take the bulk of the work and time spent: describing programs, identifying challenges, setting goals, wrestling with delicate issues, the seemingly interminable editing and review process, graphic design and publication.

And The Ugly: GRI's 90+ Sustainability Performance Indicators

Even if you collect and report on each of the 90+ sustainability performance indicators listed in the Global Reporting Initiative's (GRI) Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, even if you carefully tally and index every measurement under the sun, it's not going to be enough. What really makes a sustainability report meaningful is its context. 

What do I mean? Let's start with GRI's statement on context:

Information on performance should be placed in context. The underlying question of sustainability reporting is how an organization contributes, or aims to contribute in the future, to the improvement or deterioration of economic, environmental, and social conditions, developments, and trends at the local, regional, or global level.

Reporting only on trends in individual performance (or the efficiency of the organization) will fail to respond to this underlying question. Reports should therefore seek to present performance in relation to broader concepts of sustainability.

In essence, you can't just report on what your organization did. You must also report on what those actions mean in your local community, in your industry, and in the world at large. No longer is it enough to judge the success of environmental and social initiatives using indicators like these:

  • Hours spent training employees (safety)
  • Gallons of water used (resource use)
  • Thousands of dollars donated (philanthropy)

The indicators listed above don't really tell anyone about the effectiveness of a program or its relative impact (positive or negative). Here's another example:

If I told you that a company emitted 3,415 tons of carbon last year, would you be pleased or distraught? The truth is you wouldn't be prepared to venture a reaction unless you had more information. You're missing context. 

Adding The Context to Sustainability Reporting

Figuring out the sustainability context for your organization is one of the toughest challenges for sustainability reporters. I know, because in 2011 my company made it a specific priority. I wrote in the opening pages of the report:

"This year, we’re pushing the boundaries of our sustainability reporting, and sharing how our activities have rippled out into the world. For each of the major reporting sections, we’ll report on the outcomes of our activities.

Not just how many clients we served — but what our consulting helped those clients to achieve. Not just how many webinars we conducted, but who received that training. Not just how many miles we traveled, but what those miles helped us to do."

The Opportunity

I won't lie -- I'm not completely happy with our approach to contextualizing sustainability. I think there are many more opportunities to push deeper and really explore what it means to be a sustainability consulting company -- balancing our own impacts against the services we deliver to clients. Trying to quantify that has turned out to be much harder than I anticipated.

But we've made a start and we'll continue to improve in the coming years. That's the huge opportunity presented by annual sustainability reporting. There's always the chance to expand, to redefine, to recalculate, to re-examine, or to shift your focus as you learn along the way.

Yes, I both dread and anticipate the annual sustainability reporting cycle. The best part, however? Just like that dreaded spring-cleaning, it's that moment when you step back and survey the finished product.

Two of our clients recently published their annual sustainability reports and featured them in our blog. Check out the article here!

How NOT to Choose Green Team Members

What are some of the qualities or behaviors you look for potential green team members? Dedication? Team player? Can see the big picture? These are all great reasons why someone should be on the team, but have you thought of reasons why someone should NOT be selected for a green team?

Entrepreneur wrote an article discussing some behaviors that could lead to trouble in the long run, and we thought that these 8 behaviors and qualities could be applied to selecting green team members:

1. They’re late

Being a member of a green team is rarely ever anyone’s only responsibility and people are always busy, so it is important to have members that will not be late to allow the team to maximize all of their time.

2. They see only problems

A good member of any team should not only be able to help find a solution, but also be able to identify the problem. It is NOT helpful if a green team member is pessimistic, because teams need to work towards solutions not just focus on all the problems.

3. They’re easily distracted

Focus is key. Green teams don’t always have the luxury of meeting often or for a long duration, so it is imperative that the members are focused so they can dedicate their time to the task at hand.

4. They criticize others

Teamwork is centered on the ability to work with others. If you have a member of your green team who is spending their time criticizing the other members, work will not get done and members of your team might start to doubt themselves.

5. They rush to make judgments

Projects take time, and the first idea isn't always going to be the right one or the best one. It is important to have people on your team that will listen to all options and work to find the best solution - NOT rush to make judgments on every idea that is put on the table.

6. They’re inflexible

Meetings and plans can change last minute. You want your green team members to be able to adapt to changes, because if they can’t, then you have a member of your team that could slow you down.

7. They don’t seem particularly enthusiastic

With green teams being an extra task a person might take on, it is important that they really care about the matter at hand. If you have a member that isn't enthusiastic about the work your team is doing, it can set back the progress of the group.

8. They don’t accept their mistakes

Being a good member of any team means accepting your mistakes, and if there is someone on your green team what won't own up to their mistakes, there is a chance that they’ll just repeat those mistakes down the line.

Are you a member of a green team or looking to start one? Be sure to check out our green team toolkit!

 

How to Beta Test Your Carbon Footprint Strategy

Here is a blog from 2013 we think you would enjoy again:

We frequently get calls from prospective clients who need to develop a carbon management strategy. After a number of these calls we started to recognize a pattern, so we put together a 6-step framework that explains our approach to developing an effective carbon management strategy. 

While the level of time and effort required for each step will depend on the size of your organization and your industry (and hiring a sustainability consultant can make the process more efficient), all organizations should follow basically the same path. 

We've already covered step #1 (clarify your goals) and #2 (decide on a carbon measurement process), so today we're talking about the next step.

Once you've 1) committed to measuring your company's carbon footprint and 2) developed a process for gathering and analyzing the data, the next step is NOT full implementation! 

First you need to test your assumptions, tools, and scheduling. And the best way to work out the kinks in your process is to do a pilot test. Here's how it works:

Choose a single facility

It doesn't matter which facility, but choose one that has most of the impacts and emissions categories that you identified in Step 2. So for example, if your company manufacturers televisions, choose one of your manufacturing plants and not a small sales office. You should also choose a facility that is 1) well-run, 2) has decent data management systems in place, and 3) has a good working relationship with your team (especially with you!).

Identify your on-the-ground team

You'll need to work with someone who manages the bills (for energy, water and waste data), logistics (for direct and 3rd party shipping), human resources (for employee commuting and business travel), and operations (for key performance indicators like # of employees, $ revenue, # units produced, etc.). Make sure that they know they've been selected as a test study, and that they know what's expected of them in the coming weeks.

Send out the data request

Since this is a pilot test, we find it most useful to do a quick round of data collection using an excel spreadsheet. At this point in the game, there is no reason to set up any software or online configuration. Simply create a spreadsheet with one row for each type of data you are requesting, with columns according to the figure below. The key is to quickly determine where good records are available, where estimates need to be made, who is responsible, and where there may be gaps and/or red flags.

See what comes back -- and how long it takes

You may find that your time estimates are dramatically off. You may also find that you need to add in additional rounds of data review and quality assurance at the facility level.

Run your data through a preliminary carbon calculator

You can create your own carbon calculator using sites like Emissionfactors.com -- or use the one that your sustainability consultancy has available. (You should NOT be paying for a software subscription yet -- this is still the testing period.) See what jumps out at you. In many cases, you'll be surprised at how big your indirect impacts are -- for most of our clients we find that Scope 3 emissions account for about 75% of total carbon emissions.

Tweak your process

Now that you have a real life pilot study of your carbon footprint data collection and analysis, you're ready to finalize the process. If you find errors in your assumptions, or need to change your data collection process, now is the time. If you're happy with the results, great! Now you're ready to consider the best way to roll out the process to all facilities. In many cases, it will be asustainability software platform (and now that you know what you need, the process of choosing the right one will be much, much easier!). In other cases, it may make sense to have your IT people develop a web application for your intranet site so that people can enter their data directly into the calculator (without having to purchase a software subscription.)

Roll it out!

You're finally ready to expand your carbon footprint process to additional locations. Depending on your sense of urgency, you may choose to tackle all facilities at once, or take a phased-in approach. Whichever works best for you!

Want to learn more about reducing your carbon footprint? Check out our white paper!