By Kristin Hanczor, Sustainability Intern, and Amy Seif Hattan, Corporate Sustainability Officer, Thornton Tomasetti
In March of 2013, Thornton Tomasetti released its inaugural sustainability report. The report provided an opportunity to update our employees on the progress we made towards our corporate sustainability goals. It also improved our ability to communicate with external audiences interested in our business practices. Previously we had published an abbreviated report within the pages of our annual report; a comprehensive, stand-alone sustainability report brought attention to the information and allowed us to share it in compelling way.
Since its launch, the report has been successful in sparking interest. Internally, employees have asked how to get more involved, and the report has increased executive buy-in by reflecting back upon our progress and goals in a way that inspires. Externally, it has piqued the interest of clients and potential partners, especially those looking to learn more about sustainable business practices and building designs. We also received a request from a trade publication to contribute a piece about our sustainability commitments.
Corporate sustainability reporting has become commonplace for companies across industries in recent years. It is changing from a “nice to have” to something that is expected by consumers and stakeholders. One study found that 53 percent of S&P 500 companies published sustainability reports in 2011, compared to only 19 percent in 2010, and that number continues to grow. Sustainability reporting has not yet become standard practice in the architecture and engineering industry, but a growing number of companies are publishing reports.
There are many different approaches to sustainability reporting, which often depend on a company’s size and target audience. Large, publically traded companies typically report to investors and environmentally minded shareholders to show how they are proactively identifying risks and putting processes in place to mitigate them. The guidelines established by the Global Reporting Initiative, or GRI, have become a standard model for these firms because investors can easily review and compare companies.
But for companies focused mainly on other outcomes – such as educating employees and communicating to clients, as Thornton Tomasetti is – the GRI model may not be a necessity. Our 2013 sustainability report is an 11-page snapshot of how our business realizes its commitment to environmental sustainability and social responsibility. Our goal was to consolidate the most relevant information in a way that is informative, easily digestible and visually appealing.
So how do you decide the best approach for your company?
Our fast-paced world increasingly revolves around short narratives with captivating visuals, so keep your audience in mind. A short report highlighting key efforts could be more accessible than a long report outlining every detail of your business practices.
An important concept when creating a sustainability report, whichever framework you choose, is materiality. Your report should focus on topics that are most connected to your business. In a recent article, the associate director of Corporate Citizenship said, “Report what matters to the people that matter, and the rest will follow naturally.” The article explains how even GRI is moving away from a prescriptive approach in its upcoming G4 guidelines to give companies more autonomy over how to report on what is meaningful to them.
Another key aspect of sustainability reporting is goal setting. It is difficult for a company to set tangible goals for business operations, and even harder to explain these goals in a way that provides concrete steps for reaching them. Therefore, articulating clear goals, tracking performance and being transparent about progress makes it much easier to engage any audience. At Thornton Tomasetti, goal-setting was a major prerequisite to our report; now we have meaningful data and detailed steps on how to stay on track for success.
Finally, you must report with balanced transparency. Some people think a sustainability report should only tell the story of a company “doing good,” but this approach limits your ability to address issues and plan for improvement. For example, gloating about how much you donate to charity, rather than discussing the environmental impact or community benefits of your business practices, blurs the lines of a company’s priorities. Corporate sustainability can’t be acquired just by writing a check; companies must tie actions back to business goals and strategically integrate these actions into their core values. This type of transparency better equips a company to identify and manage risks that are most impactful to future success.
Embarking on an inaugural sustainability report can be daunting, but good preparation will provide a strong framework for getting started. Being diligent about collecting data, setting goals, tracking progress and involving a variety of stakeholders will arm you with the information you need to showcase the purpose and impact of your work in a meaningful way. Click here to view a list of more sustainability reporting tips to help you get started!
Have you created a sustainability/CSR report? Has it increased your engagement with stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders, community, etc.)?