The new sustainability story Sustainability never stops By Michael Fisher

Apr 15, 2016

Think bigger than your corporate responsibility report

It’s less iconic than the opening day of baseball. Not as noticeable as short sleeves and sandals. But the annual corporate responsibility and sustainability report is surely a rite of spring.

For many of us at AHA, CR report season caps off months of interviews, writing and design work with our clients. Whether you’re directly involved in CR or part of the appreciative audience within your company, seeing all this effort captured in one shining report might feel like a culmination.

It’s actually just the beginning of something even greater.

With the launch of your report, you’ve got people’s attention. Now, make the most of it. Show them how your CR efforts make a difference to them. Tell stories that add dimension to your brand. Keep people engaged all year long—by mining the treasure trove of material you’ve already compiled. Here’s how to do it. 

Tell the stories behind the numbers

Statistics can be great for an at-a-glance look at what you’ve achieved. Behind every number, though, are real people whose stories reveal why your company does what it does and how those efforts make a real difference.

Consider how Microsoft communicates about its YouthSpark program. The company’s 2015 Citizenship Report tells us YouthSpark has brought education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities to more than 307 million young people since 2012. Microsoft drives that impact home on its YouthSpark Hub web pages featuring program updates, student success stories and community partner profiles.

Videos on the site give people a chance to hear what YouthSpark means to high school teachers. Elsewhere, Microsoft employees share why they volunteer as YouthSpark mentors. Personal testimonials like these bring the program to life and show its value more convincingly than big numbers alone ever could.

Document your journey

Of course the people who follow your company’s work in CR want to hear last year’s results and next year’s goals. That’s where your annual report shines. But people also care about the steps you’re taking to get there. You can hold their interest and build their trust by providing regular updates on your progress.

Procter & Gamble supplements its yearly 2020 Sustainability Goals reporting with online “Sustainability Stories” about the partnerships and projects that are moving P&G closer to each goal. One recent story tells how the company is working with Constellation, a northeastern U.S. energy company, on a biomass plant that can convert wood scraps into steam to help power one of P&G’s largest manufacturing facilities. This shows the challenges and hard work behind P&G’s 2020 goal of sourcing more renewable energy, and it makes the company’s reporting that much more credible.

Go deeper into the details

Your annual report has to cover a lot of topics in a small space. Broad statements and quick-hit summaries give people that essential “30,000-foot view” in a skimmable way. Where the report stops, your ongoing CR communications can pick up the thread.

HP Inc. uses this approach to dig even deeper into its work on privacy, human rights, corporate ethics, and more. For example, its privacy overview breaks down the multiple ways that HP protects customers’ data, weaves privacy into product design, and trains its employees to recognize and address privacy issues. Readers of HP’s annual report who crave more substance can find it online—and they’re more likely to keep coming back.

Be open about the lessons you’re learning

Of course you want to talk about what you’ve achieved and show that you met last year’s goals. But people also expect to see how you’re evolving and adjusting your CR approach based on experience. They’ll respect and trust you more for acknowledging you still have room — and the desire — to improve.

Levi Strauss & Co. opened up about the environmental impact of its apparel in clear and direct terms last year with “The Life Cycle of a Jean.” Lots of manufacturers publish these types of product life cycle assessments. But few go as far as Levi Strauss in making its statistics on water usage, climate change and eutrophication — how nitrogen and phosphorous deposits affect oxygen levels in marine and freshwater environments — accessible to a general reader.

Simple charts spell out what the company discovered about its impact, including how much water and farmland go into producing cotton for Levi’s 501 Jeans. The assessment goes on to describe what steps Levi Strauss is taking to lower those numbers, such as its Wellthread sustainable product design and manufacturing initiative and Waste<Less commitment to use at least 20 percent postconsumer waste in each product.

That level of transparency and accessibility helps make Levi Strauss more credible, not only in CR but also as a brand that consumers can feel good about.

There’s always more to the story

You’ve put so much great work into building a corporate responsibility report with substance. Don’t stop there. Use your sustainability story to infuse purpose into your brand story. Give people a reason to care and to follow your lead.

Michael Fisher

Over his long career, first in journalism and now in marketing, Michael’s pulled back the curtain on the key people and processes driving corporate and social responsibility. So if you need to know what percentage of companies recycle polyethylene terephthalate or what “gross net positive” means—give him a call.

More from Michael Fisher:

Sustainability is more than a report

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