SustainAbility: Alignment of CSR with business strategy is key
12 December 2017
​GRI Impact Stories are short interviews with representatives from companies that are using the GRI reporting framework to create tangible benefits for their business and stakeholders.

GRI GOLD Community member SustainAbility is a think tank and advisory firm that focuses on helping companies to lead the way to a sustainable economy. We spoke with Sarah Volkman, Manager at SustainAbility, who told us how they are helping businesses take the lead on sustainability issues. ​
Sarah Volkman: We have just celebrated our 30th anniversary this year, and over those years, we have seen the evolution of the sustainability field. We leverage this depth of knowledge to advise businesses. Our unique blend of thinking and advice inspire and enable leaders to drive change inside companies, within value chains, across markets and through systems. We work with companies to facilitate dialogues and collaborations with key stakeholders, to build relationships and accelerate progress. We believe that integrating sustainability into core business strategy is the best way to drive change. We also research and analyze trends to help companies understand how emerging issues could impact their business.

SustainAbility works with many different types of companies, but often they are ones that are a bit farther along in their sustainability efforts. What are some of the common challenges in reporting facing your clients?

Sustainability reporting is not a straightforward task for companies, and the considerations continue to grow as the field matures. We’ve noticed that companies are overwhelmed by the number of sustainability reporting frameworks – GRI, SASB, TCFD, SDGs, DJSI, CDP. The landscape is constantly evolving, and since reporting on sustainability is mostly voluntary, the decisions about which framework to use and whether to adopt new reporting standards can be daunting, as well as time and resource intensive.

Data gathering and consistency of performance metrics is also a challenge for companies, especially large companies with multiple brands. Sustainability touches nearly all departments, which means that in order to report company-wide data, the entire company must be aligned and organized.

The 100 page annual sustainability report has become something of a norm in CSR. While these reports are often chockfull of useful information, the length of the overall document can be a high hurdle for potential readers. How do you help your clients report in a more concise way and why is parsimony important?

Sustainability reporting is only as good as the sustainability strategy that the report describes. That’s where SustainAbility offers support. We help companies take a step back to identify their most material sustainability issues, set ambitious goals and targets, and build a cohesive strategy that aligns with the company’s business goals.

Once a company has a strong, purposeful sustainability strategy, vision and goals, it’s much easier to keep a report focused on material issues, initiatives and performance and avoid the laundry list of unconnected programs that often make up a 100 page report.

There is a tension between the stripped down financial data and sustainability disclosures, which are often accompanied with a narrative. In your opinion, is this narrative information important and what do you think of efforts to boil sustainability reporting down into resembling financial reporting?

There will always need to be a balance between quantitative and qualitative content in a sustainability report. Sustainability reports meet the needs of various stakeholders, including customers and employees, who are best reached through narrative communications and storytelling, as well as investors, raters and rankers, who are most interested in seeing year-on-year performance metrics. Both are important, but what is most critical for transparency to be effective – for all stakeholders – is to have a clear strategy, set around goals and targets. 
All that said, there is significant value in efforts like SASB and TCFD, which align sustainability issues with financial reporting. They place emphasis on how a company’s nonfinancial performance is connected to its success and value in the long term. We’re encouraged by the interest these kinds of frameworks are creating in helping to embed sustainability in a company’s business approach.

What is your take on greenwashing  does this take place and to what degree? How do you help your clients not fall into this trap?

We have observed a shift away from greenwashing in recent years. As sustainability issues become more mainstream, customers and investors alike are more informed and sophisticated. They are asking tougher questions and have higher expectations about how sustainability topics are communicated. Combined with a rise of social media use, there is also higher reputational risk for companies that greenwash, as we have seen recently with public backlash against certain companies.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are one area where we have been helping companies avoid new potential greenwashing pitfalls. We want to make sure companies that are aligning their strategies with the SDGs are really thinking about ways their companies impact the SDGs in both positive and negative ways. There is a risk that companies will only want to discuss their positive impacts, which could lessen the importance of the SDGs.

With the GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards, companies are able to unlock the transformative power of transparency, while contributing to the common sustainability agenda and reaping the benefits of increased stakeholder trust. Join SustainAbility and hundreds of other organizations in the effort to create a sustainable global economy – become a GRI GOLD Community member today!