Help! My Sustainability Report Sucks! 4 Pieces of Advice to Make It Better

Note: This post is a partial “dupe” of an episode of Table Stakes Podcast launched on the same day. Listen here for more in-depth discussion of this topic.

Working in the field of sustainability and corporate responsibility, I’ve always said we (as a field) have the best job in any company. And over the years I’ve heard hundreds of my colleagues say “I love my job.” I’ve heard even more exclamations about the intricate parts of our jobs we all love – seeing the light bulbs go on for internal leaders, spearheading game-changing partnerships, engaging employees and helping them love the company and their jobs, moving the needle on global environmental policy, and the list goes on. But in all the years I’ve worked in this field, I have seldom heard someone exclaim, “I love sustainability reporting. It’s my favorite part of my job.”

The truth is, sustainability reporting is one of the most important aspects of any CSR/sustainability leader’s job. It is a direct line of transparent communications to our stakeholders, it is a snapshot in time of how our companies and our leaders see our role and our progress. There is no more valuable document, and though we all sometimes disparage its process, the process itself is where most of the value lies. This time of year, many leaders in this space are dreading the beginning of reporting season. Some of us have well run ships, already starting kick-off meetings, sending questionnaires and holding meetings with subject matter experts, thinking about themes and trends, and readying our teams for the major push that comes when this year’s data is ready. That’s the best case scenario, but for most, we’re burying our heads in the sand thinking about January 1 and the need to start this important but often dreaded process.

If you’re one of those people, and you’re thinking “I hate sustainability reporting season” or “our sustainability report sucks,” I’ve put together some tips and ideas for you to make this reporting season easier than the last. Here are my 4 pieces of advice to make this process a little better:

  1. Fire your PR agency. I’m probably ruffling some feathers with this suggestion, but stay with me for a minute. If you hate your reporting process and dread it every year, ask yourself who is leading that process? For a lot of companies, you’ve entrusted your sustainability report to the same agency who does your press or marketing and the truth is, a lot of these agencies simply don’t have the kind of reporting expertise needed to make these processes run smoothly. Have you been with the same agency hating this process for years? It might be time to consider A) bringing the report in house for a year B) trying an expert agency in reporting or C) something else all together. They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If you dread your process, change the players and make the players the kinds of experts you want to play with.
  2. Kill some trees. Nothing is more true in sustainability reporting than the notion that sustainability reports are too damn long. The old 200+ page reports with every piece of data in them are difficult to read, frustrating to navigate, but in many cases instead of paring down those reports, we’ve simply brought them online making a 200+ page book a 200+ page website. Unfortunately, this was never the point. Wherever you are in your sustainability journey – printed, online, PDF, etc. – a major step in the process is to get seriously visual about what you’re saying and how you’re telling your story. When Beth Spurgeon and I were first beginning the transition of ArcelorMittal USA’s sustainability report to an integrated report, we literally printed every page and together sat down and laid them out on the floor (did I mention we were in a Hampton Inn in Harrisburg Pennsylvania at the time – what a fun night!). This visual representation allowed us for the first time to see dead space, to understand where the story fell off course, and to physically move pages around and see where duplicate content existed. It’s a worthwhile exercise to print everything out and see it in front of you. What’s there? What’s not there? Does everything flow and make sense both in terms of a stand alone document and a web presence that feels navigable and easy? Take a few hours or a full day and talk this through, it may be the most important exercise you do in your process.
  3. Stop preaching to the converted. We all know that stakeholder identification and materiality are the basis of any great sustainability report. Every company in the world has many different stakeholder groups. Take a beat and ask yourself whether your sustainability report is truly talking to all of them? Unfortunately, we end up writing our sustainability reports and running our reporting process considering only those stakeholders who already know us, love us, and “get it.” Who might not “get it”? Who might really need this information in order to understand who you are, what you do, or how you do your work responsibly or sustainably? Who isn’t reading your sustainability report but should be? On that same day you lay out all your pages on the floor, go through your stakeholder list and think about how that person would navigate your report. What information would an investor be looking for? The media? Your existing partners? Write the report for each of those groups, not just the ones who already know and understand. And while you’re at it, clear the jargon wherever you can. Be attuned to industry lingo and know where it might get confusing for those who aren’t “in the know.”
  4. Find a “North Star.” They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so don’t be afraid to look to reporting leaders for ideas, inspiration, layouts, language, and more. Find a company like yours – maybe it’s the same industry, perhaps it’s a like-minded or like-sized company – whose report you love and keep it pinned on your desktop or bookmarks toolbar. Even better, find five! We’ve all found ourselves stuck on questions like these: How do we show our commitment to the UN SDGs effectively? What’s a great graphic layout for economic contribution? This data table looks wonky, it needs something new. When those questions arise, open those favorite reports and find a similar graphic or section or issue. Use it! Share it with your designers, your consultants, your internal marketing team, brainstorm and find the right fit. There’s a reason reports are public – so they can be used and read and understood. The best practices are there for the taking!

Still frustrated? Don’t know where to start? Or perhaps you’re reading this thinking “Marcy, we don’t even have a sustainability report! Now you’re making me feel bad.” I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I’m here for you if you need me. I’ve had the great pleasure of working with some of the most effective reporting companies in the world as a strategist, writer, data monger, and more. I’d love to help you make your reporting process suck less. Give me a shout at or check out my website for more info.