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Reporting Trends from the Frontlines

The start of 2019, which happens to be our 20th year in business, seems like a good time to pause and reflect on trends shaping sustainability disclosure and communications today. Taking advantage of the combined wisdom of our BuzzWord team members, we identified several trends that are shaping sustainability strategies and reporting.


One key trend that is driving many others is the strengthening influence of mainstream institutional investors in sustainability disclosure and communications. Of course, investors have always been the most important stakeholder influencing corporate disclosure broadly. But for many years, “socially responsible” or, more recently, “environmental, social and governance” (ESG) investors were the only ones focusing on the kinds of non-financial disclosures found in sustainability reports. ESG investors skillfully used the levers available to them, such as shareholder resolutions and direct dialogue, to gain influence out of proportion to the size of their investments. But most mainstream institutional investors were like the guests of honor that never showed up to the party.


Many people would say the winds shifted with the 2016 letter to shareholders issued by Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock. The letter clearly signaled that investors that represent vast sums of capital were beginning to evaluate companies based how well they articulated their company’s purpose and how it created value. (Always working to be a jump ahead, BuzzWord interviewed Larry Fink as an external voice in the 2014 Ford Sustainability Report.) That letter may have been a reflection of, rather than a driver of increased mainstream investor interest in ESG disclosure, but we hear from our clients that these investors have become a more active part of the conversation around sustainability performance. This, in turn, has fueled several trends in disclosure and communications:


  •  • Integrated reporting: For a number of reasons, integrated reporting – which explicitly targets the investor audience by combining financial and non-financial disclosures — has lagged in the U.S. even as it has become a more common practice in places like Brazil and South Africa. Recently, however, companies that don’t formally issue integrated reports have begun to adopt elements of the practice, such as articulating how sustainability is integrated into their business model and how they create value as well as speaking to the use of multiple capitals, along with financial capital.
  • Investor-oriented disclosure frameworks: Beyond integrated reporting, the Sustainabiilty Accounting Standards Board’s (SASB) industry-specific standards that focus specifically on financially material sustainability indicators have gained influence. In addition, the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) has emerged as an important guidepost for companies seeking to provide information about climate risks and opportunities. Many companies are responding to TCFD by incorporating additional disclosures in their sustainability reports and pointing to that information through indexes. Examples include Citi (see p. 131) and Hess, and Southwestern Energy.
  • Rise of ESG rankings and ratings: There’s nothing like a major investor asking a company’s head of investor relations about their score on a particular rating to spark interest sustainability performance and ESG ratings at large. Though they are gaining in importance, the landscape of rating and rankings remains complex and confusing. (Note: BuzzWord is doing a session on this topic at the upcoming GRI Reporters’ Summit North America and we’ll be posting additional information before and after the session.)


Lorraine Smith chimes in: Another emergent trend in reporting is the growing awareness of the complexity and importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Some companies are realizing that reports with lots of colorful SDG boxes that fail to tie to fundamental value creation don’t do their company any favors nor do they respect the seriousness of the challenge. Contributing to the long-term outcomes in a demonstrable way is tough. Companies that are rising to this challenge are focusing on fewer SDGs that relate to their business model and aligning report content with some of the more specific targets within the goals framework, rather than keeping things at the conceptual goal level.


Ali Dimond notes: Producing more nimble sustainability reports is also trending. While the 150+ page, encyclopedic sustainability report is still pretty common, it’s becoming a less effective way to communicate an organization’s approach to sustainability to the multiple audiences seeking this kind of information. Developing more targeted communications for a variety of audiences has never been more important. For example, providing investors with the hard data they seek, along with the relevant governance and management information shows your organization is solid on managing sustainability-related risks. Employees, another increasingly important audience for sustainability information, are more interested in understanding how a company’s business supports a larger purpose, how well the company does on labor and employee issues including benefits, work life balance, workplace conditions, health and safety, etc. (BuzzWord’s long-term partnership with the National Environmental Education Foundation has demonstrated the link between sustainability and employee engagement in this report.)


Managing multiple, tailored communications sounds like a lot more work, but the core data remains the same. The difference comes in identifying key audiences and presenting that data in a way that is both meaningful and accessible to them. Buzzword has always helped our clients use their sustainability reporting as a “reservoir” of information for a wide range of uses, like recruiting materials and investor rater/ranker responses. So, it’s easier than many clients think to use their existing sustainability reporting process to develop audience-specific communications.

Nielsen meets multiple objectives with Global Responsibility Report

In early 2018, BuzzWord began work with Nielsen Holdings plc for a reporting project that was unique and challenging in several key ways.


The first challenge was explaining to readers in a concise way what the company does and how that creates corporate responsibility opportunities and risks. Most people know Nielsen as “the TV ratings company.” And Nielsen does indeed collect the information that enables media companies and advertisers to determine what people watch and the devices they watch it on. But they also measure the content people view across all types of video, audio and text platforms, including social media, as well as consumer purchasing, giving manufacturers and retailers a clear picture of who is buying what in more than 100 countries around the world. In short, they are a data-driven, technology-focused company that provides measurement services to a wide array of clients globally.


The second challenge was delivering a report that effectively implemented the company’s unique reporting strategy. Like many companies, Nielsen wanted to align with the Global Reporting Initiative Standards. But they also wanted the report to respond to 12 other rating and ranking entities’ queries – from the Dow Jones Sustainability Index to MCSI to the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.


To develop such a broad-based and comprehensive report, the company needed buy-in and commitment from the subject matter experts (SMEs) who would provide the required data and information, as well as a reporting manager who could corral all those SMEs and efficiently gather the necessary material. Fortunately Nielsen had both within their internal team, which was a key strength of the process. BuzzWord’s task was to organize and shape the material into a coherent narrative.


The resulting web-based report – which launched in June 2018 and can be accessed here – is detailed yet readable and responsive to each of the 12 raters and rankers identified by the company as important. The report meets Nielsen’s goal to serve as a one-stop-shop for any stakeholder interested in the company’s sustainability and corporate responsibility efforts.


Finally, BuzzWord had the challenge of transparently reporting on issues that are growing in importance for many companies, yet have a unique context within Nielsen’s business. Data privacy and security are among the company’s most material issues covered in the report, for example, as are risk management and supply chain issues such as conflict minerals and human rights. The report also covers human resources issues in depth and describes the company’s philanthropic and environmental programs, dubbed Nielsen Cares and Nielsen Green, respectively. Also, the report makes extensive use of videos with SMEs, which puts a human face on the company’s work and provides more nuance to key material issues.


Nielsen plans to issue a new report every other year and to update its materiality analysis in the intervening years.

A Tale of Two Coasts

Leah at mini-summitAs Hurricane Florence pounds the Carolinas, on the other side of the country more than 4,000 delegates have converged for the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) and the unveiling of more than 500 new climate commitments. The Summit, taking place in San Francisco and at 325 affiliate events, seeks to create momentum across sectors and geographies to mount an effective response to climate challenge.


Thinking globally, BuzzWord’s Lorraine Smith, wearing one of her many other hats, co-authored a Volans white paper that offers an urgent but optimistic look at climate change, arguing that we must learn to see it not only as a source of existential risk, but also as a source of immense opportunity for all sectors, well beyond the energy companies. Context and leading examples are described in greater detail in the report. Well worth a read.


Acting locally, BuzzWord was a sponsor of a GCAS affiliate event focused on climate change solutions in Montgomery County, Maryland. With a diverse population greater than that of eight states and a mix of urban, suburban, natural and agricultural lands, Montgomery County is a microcosm of many climate challenges and opportunities. In late 2017, the County Council passed an emergency resolution that established ambitious climate goals, including 100 percent GHG reduction by 2035. The affiliate “mini-summit,” organized by One Montgomery Green, convened advocates, community members and County officials to explore solutions that can contribute to meeting the goals. A report summarizing recommendations is available here.


What strikes me is that despite the contentious nature of the issue at the national policy level, the spirit of these events and explorations is creative and collaborative. The scale of the problem invites bold thinking and innovation as well as focused application of known solutions — and demands cooperation to secure our common future. That’s what we are finding in the human community, even as Mother Nature drives the point home.

The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Transition to Standards: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

GBU-first-art-buzzword-site-colorAs many companies are publishing or reaching the final stretch in developing their 2016 sustainability reports, it’s time to start planning for the next reporting cycle. A key part of that planning process for many reporters will be thinking through the GRI Standards, released in October 2016, which will be required for all GRI reporters starting July 1, 2018. In other words, any report published after that date must use the Standards rather than G4 to claim any reference to GRI.


GRI has been a major force in encouraging and guiding sustainability reporting for nearly two decades, and the four generations of GRI Guidelines have been widely used. More than 3,400 reports were published in 2016 using GRI, and some 26,400 GRI-based reports are listed in GRI’s database. The GRI Standards are intended to update its sustainability reporting framework from guidelines to a full-fledged, standards-based system. The Standards follow the 2013 overhaul of GRI’s reporting guidance from G3 to G4, which was a substantial undertaking for most organizations.


We’re sure many reporting companies, report content developers and report users are wondering how big a transition the shift to the Standards will be, and whether and when to make the jump. We think there is much to like about the Standards, and the lift won’t be as heavy as the move from G3 to G4. To help reporters think through this transition, we’ve developed a white paper reviewing some of the good, the bad and the ugly of the new Standards based on how well they help to advance GRI’s stated goals, their value to reporters and report readers and the effort required to make the shift.


Download our white paper The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) transition to Standards: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Chronicling K-Cup® Progress for Diverse Audiences

It’s always exciting when our clients make significant strides toward meeting their commitments. Keurig did exactly that during its fiscal year 2016, which made for some great news to share in the company’s fiscal 2016 sustainability report.


The audiences for Keurig’s sustainability news vary from customer companies to campaigners to consumers. To tell the story of Keurig’s continuing sustainability progress, BuzzWord and Celery Design Collaborative  worked with Keurig to produce a full PDF report, digital and PDF summary brochures, and updates to the company’s sustainability webpages. The team also created infographics that can be used for multiple purposes throughout the year. This approach allows for consistent information and messages in a variety of user-friendly formats across multiple platforms.


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Among the progress reported: Keurig met its 2020 target to reduce life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of brewed beverages by 25% through efficiency measures that simultaneously accommodated the growth of the company. The company has also updated its GHG footprint, which it will use as the basis to set a new GHG reduction target. In addition, Keurig continued its longstanding leadership in sustainable coffee practices and social impact partnerships. The company is nearly halfway to its goal to improve 1 million farmer livelihoods by 2020, with more than 417,000 people in the supply chain engaged in projects to improve farming techniques and adopt climate- and water-smart practices. Check out page 52 of the report to learn how these projects impact real people around the world.


But many stakeholders are focused on another one of Keurig’s targets – the pledge to make 100% of K-Cup® pods recyclable by the end of 2020. In conjunction with the 2016 sustainability report, the company announced a significant milestone: All K-Cup® pods in Canada will be recyclable by the end of 2018.


A key component in the company’s recyclable K-Cup® pod strategy is to improve recycling systems through ongoing tests at material recovery facilities and collaboration with partners, such as the Closed Loop Fund. Keurig also recently joined the Circular Economy 100. Here are just a few ways Keurig helps to solve the recycling puzzle beyond the K-Cup® pod:


  • + Increasing recycling access by investing more than $1 million per year in recycling systems and education
  • + Transforming the understanding of how products and packaging are recovered for recycle with award-winning testing methodology
  • + Promoting use of recycled plastic in new, durable products, such as storage bins and outdoor furniture

Science-based goals: The key to “doing enough”

Sustainability reports have always aspired to place a company’s activities and impacts into context. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), for example, has included “sustainability context” as a reporting principle since 2002. But in practice, this aspiration hasn’t always been met: Companies often report performance indicators but omit information that would help stakeholders understand the significance of the data.


For example, if Company A reports it used 10 million gallons of water and Company B used 200 million gallons, Company A has better environmental performance, right? Not so fast! If Company A withdraws 90 percent of the available water from a river, degrades its water quality and discharges it upstream of a community, it may have much worse performance than a bigger water user. It all depends on the source of the water, the sustainable level of withdrawals from that source, what share of withdrawals the company claims, and whether water is returned to the source – and in what condition. These considerations quickly move context into the realm of science, particularly in determining sustainable levels of use or “ecological limits.”


Sustainability context is even more important when setting goals. Yet according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), “Despite…looming ecological threats, most companies set sustainability targets based on what is considered feasible or competitive rather than what is necessary to preserve Earth’s resources for future generations. Out of 40,000 corporate sustainability reports published between 2000 and 2014, only about 5 percent mention ecological limits.” As Andrew Steer of WRI sums it up: “Stop just doing better and do enough.”


There’s no doubt that providing sustainability context and setting science-based goals can be daunting. When Ford launched a pioneering science-based climate goal in 2008, its scientists had to develop a complex model of emissions and atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) levels in order to set a target reflecting their share of necessary reductions. The good news is that science-based goals are becoming better understood and established, with guidance, tools and inspiration more readily available than ever before. For example:


  • – The Science Based Targets initiative provides guidance and tools to companies to make it easier to adopt GHG emissions reduction targets that limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. A collaboration among CDP, the UN Global Compact, WRI and World Wildlife Fund, Science Based Targets provides different models for emissions reduction. As of December 2016, more than 200 businesses had pledged to work with the initiative to set goals related to climate. Next up – helping companies ensure their water neutrality goals are meaningful and scientifically sound.


  • – The Future Fit Business Benchmark is an open-source tool that allows companies to benchmark their sustainability performance with an eye toward being “fit” for the constraints of the future. As they put it, “a future-fit® business is one that in no way undermines – and ideally increases – the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.”


  • – World Resources Institute worked with Mars to set goals that take into account science regarding the global carbon budget, water stress and other ecological constraints. The goals also take into account the local context of impacts throughout the company’s supply chain and operations.


  •  – Kellogg committed to deliver a 65 percent reduction in Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2050. What’s also significant is that the company is engaging direct suppliers to reduce absolute Scope 3 emissions by 50 percent by 2050. Kellogg even specifies the percentage of suppliers to be engaged – 75 percent of Tier 1 suppliers – and how they’ll be engaged: by reporting to CDP Supply Chain by 2020.


The concept of living within one’s limits is straightforward. But for companies setting sustainability goals, figuring out those limits and how they relate to a company’s activities and impacts – positive and negative – has been challenging. That picture is changing rapidly. We hope we’ve provided some insight on the how to set these goals, to secure a better future for all of us.


Communicating the Value Chain

What could be more important to stakeholders than understanding the nature of a company’s business? Yet many reporters miss the opportunity to provide this basic information. That’s changing, though, as sustainability and CR reports are used more often to provide greater clarity on a company’s business model (how it makes money) and on its value chain (key direct and indirect activities that support the business model).


This is happening in tandem with increased integrated reporting and additional focus on corporate purpose. In fact, the International Integrated Reporting Council’s guidance (IIRC) requires that companies illustrate the business model. Whether they use the IIRC framework or not, more and more companies are creating visual representations of their business, which can also help to make their reporting more visually engaging.


Showing the value chain can be straightforward, as our client Novelis did:




Campbell Soup Company’s simple wheel graphic is also straightforward, but includes examples of material issues, activities and initiatives related to each step of the value chain.




At the other end of the spectrum, Fibria, a Brazilian pulp company, uses the IIRC’s approach to reporting on value creation by clarifying the business model and showing how the business increases or decreases stocks of financial and non-financial capital. Fibria offers multiple business model infographics for a range of audiences, putting the visual of how the company creates value front and center for key audiences.




To determine which approach makes the most sense for your company, consider the following questions:


+ Who is the primary audience? Is it investors, suppliers, customers or some combination?

+ Which framework are we following (IIRC, GRI, etc.)? This is a great place to start, since frameworks offer advice on what to include in visual depictions of value chains.

+ Are there stakeholder misconceptions about our value chain that we have an opportunity to clarify or correct through a value chain graphic?

+ What are the highest priority areas to share? Be sure to include the most important steps of the value chain—if your chosen audiences would be overwhelmed by seeing detail like Fibria’s, consider a mostly visual representation.


No matter how you approach sharing your value chain, it’s an important step at a time when reporting about activities outside a company’s core operations is all but expected.

Four New Tools for Sustainability Professionals

Here’s a brief roundup of new sustainability and general business tools on our radar. From visualizing company financial performance in context to understanding the interconnected benefits of green infrastructure, there’s something helpful for sustainability professionals working in all kinds of disciplines.


This financial visualization tool allows you to view the color-coded financial performance of sectors, categories and companies at a glance. For example, the consumer goods sector varies from red to green, representing the performance of each company’s stock, while the size of the block corresponds to the company’s relative market cap. Hovering over the sector or category allows you to see the performance of top companies. You can also filter the tool by S&P 500 companies.




Transformative Transparency


Supply chains are notoriously complex and often opaque, but also vitally important to understanding a company’s impacts and opportunities to shrink its footprint. Created by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the supply chain transparency platform, now in beta testing, aims to help researchers and others understand the flow of agricultural goods from their origin through traders and importers to a destination country.  The current version focuses on the commodities of coffee and soy due to their ties to deforestation. The tool sources shipping data to provide supply chain mapping, which is then overlaid with social and environmental data to help identify sustainability risks and opportunities.


Partnership for Resilience and Preparation (PREP)


As a part of its late-September announcement on climate partnerships through the Partnership for Resilience and Preparation (PREP), the Obama Administration announced a new data platform created by the World Resources Institute and the U.S. Department of the Interior. The PREP platform aims to provide unprecedented access to robust, actionable, climate data for companies and communities. Though the platform is in beta, a quick look through it reveals historical and projected data related to precipitation, temperature and emissions as well as human-centered research around topics like climate justice.


City Performance Tool


Directed at urban planning and municipal sustainability professionals, Siemens’ City Performance Tool (CyPT) analyzes how improving infrastructure could support economic development and reduce environmental impact in cities like San Francisco. Specifically, CyPT uses modeling to show how (and which) green energy, building and transportation technologies reduce impact and create jobs. The city of San Francisco plans to use this data to meet its 2050 environmental goals.


Smithfield Foods Increases Engagement with Phased Release Approach

Smithfield Foods is a longstanding BuzzWord client that never stands still. And when it comes to sustainability reporting, the company consistently looks for ways to push the envelope.


This summer, Smithfield released its annual integrated sustainability report in phases over a period of nearly two months. The goal? To engage more deeply with stakeholders on a variety of topics and showcase each section of its sustainability program in manageable pieces. The complete report, which was posted in August, was in accordance with the core option of the Global Reporting Initiative’s G4 Guidelines (although Smithfield reported on many indicators beyond the core requirements).


Smithfield’s latest report includes a new feature designed to further increase the company’s transparency. The food ingredient glossary – the first of its kind by a pork processing company – lists and describes ingredients used in products across the company’s brands. Although the primary ingredient in Smithfield products is pork, the glossary includes nearly 100 additional ingredients used.


The report tracks the company’s progress on its sustainability commitments, including its industry-leading pledge to convert all company-owned farms to group housing systems for pregnant sows. At the end of 2015, Smithfield was more than 81% of the way toward its 2017 completion goal.


In addition, the report highlights the company’s recent “One Smithfield” initiative, which centralized the organization and is reaping efficiencies across the company, particularly in areas of transportation and procurement. And it features the company’s innovative partnerships in its agricultural supply chain with a leading national environmental organization, which together with Smithfield is collaborating on ways to reduce fertilizer loss from farms.


Read the full report here.

Engaging with the Sustainable Development Goals – not Business as Usual

Launched with great fanfare a year ago, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) build on the success of Millennium Development Goals and go well beyond them. Like the MDGs, the SDGs have three interconnected objectives: ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity by 2030, all while tackling climate change. However, the SDGs were developed in a true public/private/NGO collaboration, taking multiple perspectives into account and addressing issues critical to developed and developing countries alike. There’s a call to action here, too: the goals specifically ask the business community to engage in solving global challenges. They also give companies a new way to evaluate their business models in a sustainability context.


A year out, companies are engaging with the goals in a variety of ways from pro forma to strategic – as well they should: according to research from PwC UK, 90% of people think it’s important for businesses to work with the SDGs, and 78% of people are more likely to buy from a company using them.


How companies are using the SDGs: a few examples


Unilever: Leading consumer packaged goods company Unilever celebrated the launch of the goals with short animated videos explaining how the company supports individual goals like clean water and gender equality. Later, it engaged employees in the process, asking them to make videos about what the goals meant to them on a personal level. By bringing employees into the conversation, Unilever creates a connection that makes the goals that much more embedded in the organization.


Coca-Cola Enterprises: Many companies, including Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), are mapping their existing CSR initiatives to the SDGs; CCE even shared its mapping in a sustainable development infographic. While this is valuable, it would be even more meaningful if CCE used the goals and underlying targets to inspire strategy, including future goals and targets. Not many companies are there yet, but it’s where leaders are headed.


Novozymes: For example, Novozymes, a Danish biotechnology company, describes its approach to connecting the SDGs and its business in its sustainability report. The company elaborated at last June’s Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego on how it mapped its company purpose, strategy and long-term goals to the SDGs. The rationale is that thinking about these goals now means it will be better-positioned to deal with a tougher regulatory environment and scarcity of natural resources like water. The company even developed a tool to evaluate its innovation pipeline against the goals.


Engaging with the SDGs


Initial Steps


1. Spot opportunities to leverage the goals through mapping, engagement and communications, like CCE did.


2. Figure out what steps you’ve already taken throughout your value chain, in internal and external CSR initiatives and through strategic philanthropy. Are there opportunities to have the goals inform existing initiatives?


Deeper Engagement


3. While the 17 goals are inspiring – and it’s hard to imagine anyone questioning them – the real substance of the SDGs lies in the 169 targets that set out how the goals will be met. So it’s important to dig into the details of each target and figure out what’s best aligned with your business and where the threats and opportunities lie. The PwC UK survey reports that more than 30% of businesses surveyed only plan to assess impact on some of the SDGs relevant to their businesses, while just 10% plan to assess impact on all relevant SDGs.


4. In your next materiality assessment process, leverage the goals as another lens by which to assess your material issues. The SDG Compass guide, created by the UN especially for businesses looking to integrate SDGs into strategy, offers step-by-step advice.


Looking to the future


Despite the high profile and flurry of activity around the SDGs, a recent, sober assessment by DNV-GL  of the likelihood the goals will be reached concluded that eight of the goals are unlikely to be achieved in any global region by 2030. But the same report, which was presented to the UN Global Compact (UNGC), offers examples of how UNGC signatories are having an impact on each of the goals and sets out a challenge to business to raise their level of ambition and improve the odds of success.


Implementing the SDGs is not business as usual. It’s business for a sustainable future.




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