UPS and its quest for the format with the most impact
22 October 2019

​Sustainability reporting is helping companies understand and manage their social, economic and environmental impact. The data that businesses obtain can serve as an indicator of the current levels, and the way forward, towards a more sustainable business, and world. 
​But data alone is not enough. Reporting is at its most effective when the information it contains can be understood, analyzed and referenced by different actors, whether internal or external. Presenting the data in a way that is comparable, concise and, most importantly, interesting for the audience, becomes a challenge when there are multiple audiences, with sometimes conflicting views and interests around the company’s sustainability performance. 
Jennifer Garner, Sustainability Communications Manager at UPS, shares how the company is reaching out to different audiences, the challenges of producing sustainability reporting in the digital era, and the opportunities that digital reporting provides to turn data into actionable information. 

A solid basis
In the age of digitization, static data locked in a printed report is no longer sufficient to meet the needs of the diverse parties interested in a company’s sustainability efforts and impact. UPS has issued an annual sustainability report since 2002, when reports were typically long-drawn, with hundreds of pages of content, wrapped in narrative and full of appendices. Over time, it became clear to the UPS team that a new format would be needed to more effectively reach the company’s target audiences, who have different interests and uses for the information. And at the same time, those audiences tend to shift as the company evolves its strategy, goals and programs.
 
UPS continued to seek the right balance between the need for concise reporting and the need for information from different groups. The GRI Standards, launched in 2016, presented an opportunity to address this challenge. The very nature of the Standards meant the content was clearly defined and it was also comprehensive. And having a solid basis regarding the data needs gave the team space to rethink the format. It gave them the opportunity to ensure the information served the multiplicity of audiences, both internal and external, in a way that could work given the inevitable constraint on resources to service them all. For UPS’s 2017 report issued in 2018, the team set the basic structure, which involved a progress report in hard copy, with an interactive, online GRI Content Index that served to guide especially those audiences that were familiar with the GRI Standards and had questions on specific topics or disclosures. 

Finetuning the process
This format was well-received with stakeholders, especially since the team also made available a downloadable PDF version of the content index for those readers who may need or want a hard copy. This same PDF was used to streamline the internal review and approval process for the report. 

With the changing ways in which people consume information, it’s more important than ever to provide a compelling narrative, as well as easy to find disclosures. For its 2018 report, UPS chose to have most of the storytelling through an online Progress Report, paired with an interactive GRI Content Index. The team also created and printed a supplemental highlights brochure for internal stakeholders to use when sharing UPS’s sustainability story with external audiences.

Jennifer Garner, “Our colleagues use the brochure as a conversation starter about our sustainability activities with customers, policymakers and other stakeholders. And if the interaction they are having requires more specific data points, then we can move the conversation online, pointing them to the GRI Content Index”. 

This move is also helping UPS understand the audiences that are interested in the report, the information they are looking for, and how they are reaching this information, all useful points of interaction with the company’s different interested parties. 

The future is digital 
Publishing the 2018 report in this double format was a milestone, and the process for the 2019 report is now full steam ahead. UPS expects to build on the interactive report, while remaining mindful of the unique needs of different stakeholders. For the company, the digital format is the logical solution to ensure the audience stays engaged, as digital is how we currently consume information. Having a GRI Content Index also helps structure the information in an interactive way, and can ensure continuity to best showcase progress. 

There is a clear trend towards digitization, and UPS has figured out a formula that works for the company, the information users, and the committed team that is in charge of understanding everyone’s needs and ensuring they are met.