Who reads Sustainability Reports?



Corporate sustainability reports have been around since four decades. The first reports were perhaps published by the chemical industries that polluted the environment and faced bad reputation and penalties. Sustainability report was more of a savvier!

Since then, more than 10,000 companies have published more than 50,000 reports, according to CorporateRegister.com, which maintains a searchable database of reports.

The Global Reporting Initiative has basically cornered the market on sustainability reporting, with 78 per cent of the companies applying the GRI guidelines. This statistics rises to more than 90 per cent in some countries, like South Africa, Chile and Sweden. India has seen the biggest rise in reporting, from 20 per cent in 2011 to 73 per cent in 2013. But who really reads sustainability reports?

I was speaking last week at one of India’s leading corporate’s Sustainability Conclave. The conclave was attended by 50 sustainability champions of the Company. When the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) asked – how many of you have read the company sustainability report – only 5 showed up their hands.  The number was astonishingly low but I was surprised to see their candidness.

The CSO then asked, on page 3, we have featured a group photo where we have our Managing Director (MD). Is the photo of MD, sitting or standing? One sustainability champion ventured and said “sitting”. The CSO smiled and said that there is no such photo on page 3!

Sustainability is not yet woven into the fabric of the corporations. Sustainability reporting provides increased knowledge on the sustainability related efforts taken by the company but this has not yet changed the behaviour of investors, R&D and product designers or regulators. Regulators continue to focus on non-compliance, investors on the financial performance and the product designers limit to the conventional and large volume markets.

And how good are these sustainability reports? KPMG rated the reports of the top 250 biggest companies worldwide, and gave them an average score of 59/100. Construction and building materials did the worst of any sector, with an average score of just 46/100. So indeed there is a need to improve the way we write the sustainability reports.

Time and time again research, data and information that that goes into their sustainability report is not put to the best use. Often a company’s most interesting sustainability work is left buried in these dull but important publications that no one really reads.  You do see a new era of “sustainability designers” who use their skills in choosing fonts and colours that are appealing, present “info-graphics” and plug in “touching photos” of the poor, underprivileged women and children. Paper used is FSC certified, elemental chlorine free and even embedded with seeds.  That makes the report look special.

The reports contain annexes that contain time series data, indicators and benchmarks – especially for those who want to see details.

But most readers are not interested in tables and graphs and such statistics. They are also tired of the “touching photos”. Readers are looking for “sustainability stories” to understand company’s true sustainability credentials. Stories tell a lot – and they are sometimes more ”viral” than the numbers.  But then not many companies have good stories to tell. And to get the stories you need to talk to people.

Some companies are taking a lead in communicating sustainability more innovatively. The Co-operative 2012 Sustainability Report is one good example. It exemplifies a new trend in video storytelling to illustrate sustainability reports. Other such examples are Novo Nordisk – The Danish healthcare giant that uses hand-drawn animation to explain its commitment to fighting diabetes –  a major theme of the company’s 2012 Report.  SAP has created a dedicated Twitter hash tag #sapintegrated to help shepherd conversation around its 2013 integrated corporate and sustainability report. Visit the new SMI-Wizness Social Media Sustainability Index update that is available online. (see http://publisher.wizness.com/reports/the-smi-wizness-social-media-sustainability-index-2012)

Sustainability reporting is a “process” that must involve all the concerned stakeholders. Report itself is not the only objectives. The reporting “process” brings in collective ownership, data flow optimization, identification of improvement projects and fosters innovation. Everybody in the domain knows that. But in reality the reports are mostly consultant-driven with low involvement of the company staff. So reporting becomes more of  ritual.

I asked my Professor friend on these concerns about sustainability report – especially that these reports are not prepared the way they should and are hardly read.

The Professor said that he just received a contract from a large corporate to fix this problem. “The company has two large halls for lunch. I converted one of the halls as a reading room. In this room, I keep several copies of the sustainability reports that the company produces. Folks are made to wait in this hall before joining the second hall where lunch is served.  They browse and read the reports as there is nothing else to do”

I wasn’t sure whether this was going to work. So I asked. “Are you sure they will? They may not even pick up the copies…”

The Professor smiled as if he expected this question. “The lunch coupons are kept inside the sustainability reports and at random locations. You really need to browse pages of the report to find these”    


Cover image sourced from www.thelearningark.blogspot.com


  1. Fantastic read! First let me tell you that I really like your ‘Professor Friend’ in all your blogs! Second, the points that you made on SR topic matches my conclusion on the subject. I have also seen people communicate passionately about how they are playing an instrumental role in bringing sustainability in the DNA of their company culture through Sustainability reports! But i wonder do they really understand what does that mean? If you start talking to them in detail….it becomes clear that the DNA is limited to data streamlining and volunteering for social projects!

  2. I fully agree that regulators like SPCBs are still in compliance driven mode. However, the regulations they are asked to enforce are out of tune to today’s realities and hardly have any emphasis to achieve sustainability. So we need a paradigm shift in environmental governance.

  3. Great read! I don’t find relevance of sustainability reports of corporate in present regulatory regime. Moreover, a fantastic sustainability report does not reflect the true functioning of the company for protection of environment & sustainability. Contrast can be seen in majority of the cases.

  4. I believe this too will change for the better. I have noticed some companies like ITC take great pride in their Sustainability Reports. Many surveys have shown that sustainability initiatives aid better economic performance and not otherwise. Yes, these reports are not as widely read as they should be. Probably we have to rope in celebrities and media to promote!!

  5. I feel that Sustainability Reports were meant to create awareness and spread the good practices followed by the companies. However, in many cases, publishing the report itself has become the main objective and the real purpose has been lost. Media planners, consultants and the clients are all trying to “project” their achievements and that is what makes the reports less effective

  6. Good one from Dr. Modak.
    if you notice where the CSOs are placed in the companies, you will understand company’s objective of sustainability reports publishing. In some companies they are with Corporate Communications (image management), some others in Corporate Affairs (compliance). Rarely a dedicated function reporting to the CEO, enjoying support of LoB leaders, engaged in process enhancements and adequately resourced. Quite a nuber of them invite external consultants to write their Sustainability Reports. Data is created to support claim to fame. Where do you expect sustainablity practices?

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