Sustainability content in context

The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G4 Guidelines went into effect at the end of 2015. To many companies shifting from G3.1, the change felt like yet another case of moving the goalposts. Sustainability reporting is already hard to follow for many audiences, so why make it even more complicated?

But what if the guidelines are actually a tool for better corporate responsibility (CR) storytelling and strategic engagement?

The G4 Guidelines emphasize materiality, or narrowing your focus to the sustainability topics most relevant to your business and your stakeholders. This is to prevent CR reports from trying to be everything to everyone, which often has the adverse effect of engaging exactly no one.

But G4 goes one step further by recommending you put your actions in a “sustainability context.” While this may seem like a minor change—who doesn’t think context is a good thing?—it’s also clear that many companies have yet to really grasp how to do this effectively.

Those that do, however, are poised to set themselves apart in a crowded CR landscape. They can reach a broader audience, inspire and engage stakeholders, and even gain a competitive edge.

Facts can’t speak for themselves

From a traditional storytelling perspective, context is a must. The right setting or context gives us insight into the cultures, social issues or events that shape characters’ behaviors. Imagine divorcing the storyline in The Great Gatsby from the gaudy excesses of the Jazz Age, or 1984 from a totalitarian society on a constant war footing.

This is every bit as true in sustainability communications. Companies operate in a time of increasingly clear social and environmental threats, from climate change to resource scarcity to income inequality.

A company’s actions—good or bad, intentional or not—can’t be truly understood when removed from these contexts, which are constantly looming in the background.

It’s even more powerful when people can evaluate your company’s performance within the context of these threats. A cross-company strategy to reduce water use is more meaningful when we understand the stakes.

“Context gives us insight into the cultures, social issues or events that shape behavior.”

Sharing the journey

But the opportunity G4 creates is even greater from a strategic perspective because it allows companies to engage with stakeholders in new and powerful ways.

Specifying your material impact on big-picture issues forces you to fully consider the priorities of multiple audiences. And not just understand them, but account for them—even if they don’t represent the views of your company.

It invites you to engage in meaningful dialogue, acknowledge the complexity of your risks and challenges, and propose solutions that legitimately move the needle in some way.

In effect, you’re appealing to stakeholders to help co-create your sustainability narrative and be an active, influential presence in your sustainability agenda. That’s a powerful act. And it can pay off in big ways, not only influencing your future business strategies but also generating the kind of brand engagement that every company wants.