Sustainability reports are one of the best ways brands can show their stakeholders (including consumers, NGOs, shareholders, etc.) exactly what they are doing in the sustainability space, and how much their company cares.
A report ensures that companies measure their sustainability impact, illustrates how they intend to improve via ambitious targets and does this all in a transparent way to ensure accountability. #MakeBrandsBeTransparent
So what exactly do we want from a sustainability report?
Ok so it’s not the most fun bit but it’s really important! We want to know exactly what commitments a brand has made, and this includes their metrics. We don’t want to see a fluffy commitment like “improve packaging sustainability” (ahem, Kraft Heinz). Instead we want to see a % increase in packaging recyclability or recycled inputs, and we want to know in what timeline they plan on achieving this. For large companies, it’s also really good when they set science-based targets, in partnership with the Science-Based Targets Initiative as these are made to help businesses follow the Paris Agreement. Considering the cost and complexity, we don’t expect this from smaller brands.
It’s not just about commitments though, we also want to see the progress (or lack thereof) they've made against their target. The best way to showcase this is through a table, which indicates commitments v.s. progress. For instance, The Kellogg Company has a really clear table showing exactly that - you can check out on their sustainability report (page 10-11). Here’s a screenshot to show what we mean. It’s clear and makes it easier to scrutinise or praise their progress.
Finally, and this one is really important, especially for large companies, we want to see that the company has followed the GRI Reporting Standards. The GRI Standards ask that companies report on a myriad of issues ranging from anti-corruption to water, biodiversity to occupational health and safety, tax to emissions. The great thing about the GRI Standards is that they allow us to compare companies' impact, they help companies be transparent and accountable and they make brands' reporting consistent and credible considering the standards ask for data, not fluff.
Collaboration and certifications
Certifications are not the end-all-be-all, but they are important and indispensable in some areas. For instance, a chocolate brand should really be using an independent standard body to certify that their cacao is responsibly sourced. It’s also great if the brand explains whether they've visited any of their certified farms to check it out for themselves. We want to know how things are on the ground, not just that they are certified.
Moreover, any kind of collaboration with other companies (especially competitors), charitable organisations, NGOs or other is a really great show of strength. It means that the company is open to innovating with competitors, giving monetary support or working towards a good cause with civil society.
It’s especially great when these collaborations are clearly outlined, like in Quorn’s report (page 15). They provide a clear bullet-pointed list of the organisations, groups, forums and programmes they have partnered with and participated in.
It’s not just about the facts and the partnerships, we want to learn about the industry and we want to know what cool things employees have been doing. Basically, tell us a story!
We love Cafédirect’s sustainability report. There are a number of pages dedicated to involving their staff and allowing them to share something. For instance, one member of staff shares a journal-style account of his trip to Peru for Producers Direct's Annual Meeting in coffee. It’s captivating, personal and informative as it is about the coffee industry’s pathways to excellence. Our favourite narrative is their in-depth reportage about female farmers’ participation in the coffee industry. This information is shared as a way to educate us but also to show us how they are trying to improve the situation in the women-led cooperatives they source their coffee from. In this instance, they’ve illustrated that they understand the problem and are doing something about it because they care.
These are not the only things we should be looking out for but they are nonetheless important. Perhaps the most imperative thing to remember is that we need to carefully read these reports and look at them critically. Ask yourselves: Overall does this report seem to just tick boxes or does the soul and purpose of the company come through?
Why not review the above brands to let them know what you think about their sustainability report?