In the fast-evolving world of writing sustainability reports, it’s easy to get blinded by the science of reporting frameworks and data yet forget the fine art of writing narrative reports.
Many companies are seeking to improve their sustainability reports, or even publish one for the first time because of the EU’s new Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) or simply pressure from investors. Yet while regulation and best practice rightly put a focus on reporting metrics that are objective and comparable, it’s all too easy to lose sight of a report’s real purpose.
Quite simply, writing a sustainability report means setting out your sustainability strategy and then reporting the progress you are making towards that. You use environmental, social and governance (ESG) data to verify that progress, but you still need words to describe what the data means.
Stakeholders of all types want to see the real progress you’re making in tackling your material environmental and social risks. Investors, especially, will want to see how that chimes with your business’s financial progress.
Writing fact-based sustainability reports, without jargon
After many years of writing sustainability reports, we would advise remembering five simple guidelines for writing the stories that tell readers what you’re doing.
1. Describe your strategy as well as your specific challenges
Every business has an individual sustainability strategy, designed to tackle its ESG challenges. How might a real estate company reduce its environmental footprint for example? Or how could a retailer improve working practices across the supply chain? As a starting point, you should describe your strategy for making a material difference.
2. Report on the real progress your business has made
The time for simply setting targets is over: your stakeholders want to see the progress you’re making towards them. Report on what you have achieved during the year, leveraging ESG data as evidence.
3. Integrate this with your financial progress
There’s considerable scepticism about the claim from many asset managers that strong ESG performance translates into strong financial performance. Yet for some businesses, measures to improve environmental or social issues may well augment how they operate. If this is truly the case, it should be said.
4. Avoid jargon
Corporate jargon is a sure sign of lazy thinking. Your report should avoid ESG platitudes and simply show how the environmental and/or social measures you’re taking are making a difference.
5. Unify report writing style
Often different sections of a sustainability report may be written by different authors. Thorough copy editing can impose a uniform style and consistent message.
Narratives about better outcomes
Some of the early proponents of sustainable business complain that measurement and reporting have become an end in themselves, rather than a means of improving environmental and social outcomes. Writing a sustainability report with a clear narrative about positive change – if indeed it’s happening – helps businesses go beyond this.
2022: the year of candid ESG copywriting