computer, charts, graphics, sustainabilityIn February 2013, Tyson Foods released its fourth sustainability report. This report marks a change in our sustainability reporting process, as we transition from a biennial reporting cycle to an annual reporting cycle. This is also our first report to receive the Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI) Application Level “A.” 
Following the release of the report, we began receiving inquires about why we changed our reporting cycle and why we decided to seek the “A” Application Level from GRI. The simple answer is, we were looking for ways to increase the value of our sustainability reporting efforts. 
  • Releasing a report every two years limited the “freshness” of our reporting efforts. Our stakeholders need more timely and frequent communication regarding our sustainability performance.
  • Tyson Foods has applied the GRI reporting framework to all of the sustainability reports it has published thus far. As we look for opportunities to strengthen our reporting efforts and increase transparency, the “A” Application Level was a natural progression. 
As I considered these and other changes we have made in our sustainability reporting process, I began thinking about ways in which a company can increase the value of its sustainability reporting efforts.
What makes a sustainability report good? What makes a report bad? If a company is going to invest time and resources into producing and publishing a sustainability report, how can it ensure its reporting efforts add value to the business? 

1. Share Your Definition and Vision — As I’ve said before, a “one size fits all” approach to sustainability doesn’t exist. One of the first things I look for when reviewing a sustainability report is a statement that clearly articulates the company’s definition of and vision for sustainability. This should be presented as an element of the company’s over-arching sustainability strategy and, if possible, explained by a senior leader of the company. Understanding how a company defines and views sustainability provides context for the report. Additionally, demonstrating an alignment between the company’s business and sustainability strategies can increase stakeholder confidence that objectives and targets can be fulfilled.

2. Discuss Material Issues — More companies are implementing an issues-based approach to sustainability reporting. Issues-based reports offer transparent and frank discussions around the key issues a company and its industry is facing. Most often the reporting company will discuss the importance of the issue, how it is responding to and managing the issue, and the successes and opportunities it has had in its management approach. This approach will help ensure your report offers discussions and performance metrics of substance, which can build credibility with stakeholders. 

3. Establish Clear Goals, Plans, and Data — Gone are the days of a company simply stating it will accomplish a specific target by a set date. For example, saying you are going to reduce solid waste to the landfill by 45 percent by 2017 isn’t enough for stakeholders. Stakeholders want an understanding of the:

  • Importance and relevance of the goal;

  • Plans to achieve the goal and the progress that has been made thus far; and 

  • What the company will do to ensure continued success or adjust their plan to address short-comings. 

Sharing quality data is, in my opinion, one of the single most-underestimated challenges in developing a sustainability report. Determining what data to include, which processes to use to collect data, how to measure what is not already measured, which operations to cover, and assigning data collection responsibilities are just a few of the internal challenges you may face.

Nonetheless, it is critical you provide transparent, logical and understandable data. You must establish the basis for any calculations and data you share in your report, and clearly state any limitations and boundaries applicable to the data presented. By doing this, you help your stakeholders better understand the progress you are making.

4. Apply a Recognized Framework — First formed in the late 1990s, the GRI offers one of the most recognized and widely used frameworks for sustainability reporting. Based on a collection of globally accepted key sustainability indicators, the framework better enables companies to consistently measure and report their economic, environmental, and social performance. Applying a framework such as the GRIs, helps companies avoid the temptation to share only good news instead of what is important and of interest to stakeholders. Sharing the good news along with the opportunities and struggles aids in transparency and accountability with stakeholders.
5. Make Your Report Easy to Access — As you prepare to release a sustainability report, consider the accessibility needs of your stakeholders. Over the years, Tyson Foods has moved from printing a hard-copy 100-pages-plus report to producing a Web-based only report, and to now sharing our reports in a Web-based format supported by downloadable and printable executive summaries and performance highlights. Sustainability report readers have different needs. Whatever option or combination thereof selected, a good sustainability report is attractive and easy to read. A reader should be able to get to the information they are interested in quickly and in a format that fits their preference. 
The elements of a value-added sustainability report are still emerging as companies define and redefine their sustainability reporting process. But this continual improvement is the very nature of sustainability. Companies should be mindful of the key interests of their stakeholders and the key issues facing their business if they want their reports to be received as credible.
Just as we seek to improve our social, economic and environmental performance, we should seek to improve our sustainability reporting efforts to ensure they add value to the business.