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Does Sustainability Reporting Still Matter?
At a leading sustainability conference a couple of years ago, a panelist asked the audience: “How many of you read corporate sustainability reports?” A few hands went up. But in an audience of about 400 sustainability practitioners, it really wasn’t many. That moment stuck with me as my team embarked on the development of Pearson’s 2015 Sustainability Report. From start to finish, I remembered those few, lonely hands in the air and thought: “Who’s going to care about this?” and “How can we make it as meaningful as possible?”
Today Pearson is launching its 2015 report, focused on “Transforming Our Impact”. In it, we articulate our new five-year 2020 Sustainability Plan, define how our business aligns with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and report for the first time using the Global Reporting Initiative guidelines. It’s a big step forward for our company – and the result of a year-long process of talking to our stakeholders, internally and externally, about what sustainability should look like for a large education company.
In the process of preparing our report, we learned a lot about the value of reporting:
It is more about the journey than the destination. Pulling together a sustainability report is neither an easy nor a quick process. At many points along the way, it requires explanation (“Why are we doing this?”), persuasion (“We are including information about THAT!?”), and collaboration (“Are these the right goals to highlight?”) with internal colleagues. While it does make the process take longer, each conversation is an opportunity – to better understand the risks and opportunities inherent in how we operate, to make the case for sustainability, and to strengthen relationships with the leaders who drive change in the company and beyond.
It is never going to be perfect (as much as we’d like it to be). Our new report identifies the areas where we think our business can make the most transformative impacts on society, and lays out a three-pronged plan – to be a trusted partner, reach more learners, and shape the future of education – to maximise those impacts over the next five years. It charts a course for the “what’s”, though we don’t yet have all the “how’s”. We know there are gaps where we need to do more, disclose more, and measure our impact more effectively.
Which brings me to the last and perhaps most important point:
It is only as good as you make it. A well-crafted report enables companies to respond to stakeholder demands, attract investors, get ahead of regulation, and entice potential future employees. In our experience, it can also be much more – reporting can be a critical mechanism for strengthening engagement, setting long-term business goals, pushing boundaries, and improving performance. Ultimately, our report enables us to continue longer-term discussions – with both internal and external stakeholders – about performance, purpose, and possibilities. We will use it to stimulate dialogue and shape our commitments on critical sustainability issues, including human rights, accessibility, and innovation in education. Working collaboratively with Pearson teams, we will set and strengthen our goals and targets to enable delivery of the sustainability plan. Employees will be key allies in this effort, and their engagement and support will help us to bring sustainability to life across the business.
Our new 2015 Sustainability Report begins to tell the story of how we are transforming our impact at Pearson, but it is only the beginning. We need feedback to get better. So I invite you to read it, and share your thoughts and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. That way when someone asks, “Who reads corporate sustainability reports?”, you can put your hand up! We want to hear your perspective on how Pearson can best address the most critical issues in education today.
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