Mar 31, 2022
What can AI tell us about sustainability reporting?
The World Economic Forum has been compiling sustainability reports by governments around the world for the past few years. The now-published data from this project is alarming and underscores the importance of a responsible and sustainable future.
Seemingly, all the buzz surrounding sustainability is about how many companies are releasing reports, which is great. But are they actually worth reading? And are they actually well-reported, with impactful findings? Here, we should hope for quality over quantity.
In this article, you'll find out how Machine Learning and A.I. have emerged as a big help in analyzing these reports and what we can learn from their analysis – we’ve analyzed over 500 sustainability reports and the findings were rather surprising, but more on that later.
Before we get started, let us help you understand some of the key points of sustainability data reporting.
What is sustainability reporting?
The term "sustainability reporting" was coined in the 1990s by Oak Ridge National Laboratory which defined it as "a company's use of internal data and external benchmarks to assess progress towards environmental, social, and economic sustainability." It is most often used by large organizations but is becoming an important topic for small businesses too.
Sustainability data reporting is a way for organizations to share environmental and social information with the public. This type of reporting is important because it provides transparency, accountability, and insight into an organization's performance.
The most common types of sustainability reports are carbon footprint, water usage, waste produced, greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy use, the general health of ecosystems near production hubs, and philanthropic giving.
Why is sustainability reporting important?
We all want to live in a society that is prosperous, healthy, and most of all sustainable. However, as we grow our numbers and consume more resources, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the soundness of our environment. This is where sustainability reporting comes in.
Sustainability data reporting allows companies to measure and report their economic, environmental, and social performance for stakeholders, and more quickly and recently, for private equity and investors as well. Sustainability data reporting tells the story of what matters to an organization so that it can continue to work towards its long-term sustainability goals. Doesn’t that sound great?
How does it work?
Sustainability reporting is the collection and reporting of information regarding a company's environmental impacts. Companies provide this data in order to stand out from their competitors, be more transparent in their operations, and instill trust among shareholders, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. While it can seem to be an overwhelming task at first, impactful sustainability reporting can be done in 5 easy steps:
Understand why you're reporting
Decide what to report on
Gather qualitative and quantitative data to track your sustainability progress
Review and publish your report
Refine and improve
Sustainability reporting emerged as an industry standard partly because it helps investors make informed decisions about whether or not to invest in a company. And who wouldn’t want that? By adhering to sustainability standards and guidelines, such as the GRI Standards set by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), companies can prove that they are environmentally responsible and thereby attract investors who want to invest responsibly.
Advantages and challenges associated with sustainability reporting
There are many advantages to sustainability reporting. This can be seen through the annual reports that some companies provide. These reports usually outline how well the company is doing with respect to the environment, social responsibility, and other factors. The following represents some of the major benefits of sustainability data reporting:
Increases understanding of risks and opportunities
Highlights the link between financial and non-financial performance
Emphasizes the importance of long-term management strategy, policy and business plans
Helps evaluate sustainability performance with respect to laws, norms, codes, performance standards and voluntary initiatives;
Enables the comparison of performance internally and between organizations and sectors.
Aside from all the advantages, there are some challenges associated with sustainability reporting. For example, there are a lot of things that can't be measured and don't have a monetary value. This can make it hard to judge how sustainable something is. You also have to consider the costs and benefits of what you're reporting.
For example, do the benefits outweigh the costs? When you're looking at a company's report, you also have to keep in mind what its goals for sustainability are. There are different reports for companies that focus on different aspects of sustainability which might make it easier for them to achieve their goals.
The global standard for sustainability reports
Sustainability reports are a way for companies to share information about their practices in order to build trust with their stakeholders. As of now, there is no global standard for sustainability reporting, it is however in the works, and is something to look out for in 2022, among other key legislations. The best practice is for companies to develop and adopt sustainability reporting standards that suit the needs of their specific industries and regions.
When it comes to sustainability reporting, there are three levels of certification: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. While some organizations have developed their own standards based on these levels, others have adopted standards such as ISO 20121 or EMAS (European Union).
Sustainability Reports and Machine Learning
In this current time and age, sustainability is quickly becoming a necessity for all companies, across all industries – if not for legislative reasons, then for reasons of not wanting to be left in the dust of the sustainability revolution. Establishing a sustainable business is not about avoiding or denying to work with clients due to their incompliance. Sustainability is more about a business continuously looking for novel and creative ways to grow through smart actions, being a good community member, and not harming the environment.
Sustainability management software like SustainLab can help you understand the ins and outs of these sustainability standards so you don’t have to. Moreover, the platform makes it easy for your organization to create sustainability reports and keep track of your progress towards achievement regularly, with the help of some automation magic.
At SustainLab, our Machine Learning team has analyzed more than 500 sustainability reports from different industries! Exciting, right? Well, not so much, considering how the analysis of 500 sustainability reports actually brought about more woes than reasons to celebrate – our findings revealed that a majority of these reports were poorly written.
The ML algorithms have helped in securing statistical data about the extent to which a report has covered the topics of sustainability. Similarly, it also helped extract numerical details of the measured key performance indicators (KPIs).
Based on the analysis, we can clearly see which sustainability activities have received more attention in each company, through which we can assess the maturity level of sustainability work in each area of sustainability by analyzing the depth of the reported material, e.g., differentiating detailed numerical measurements from very high-level textual description.
We can see how far companies are reporting what really matters for sustainability in their business. In other words? We can tell when a company is doing a sustainability report for the sake of it, versus a company that’s doing a sustainability report for the purpose of improving their sustainability agenda and becoming a more sustainable business.
In order to sustain a sustainable business practice, you need more than just policies and procedures; you need to gather high-quality sustainability data that enables your company to generate sustainability reports that communicate the results of sustainability activities to regulators, investors, and other stakeholders.
In fact, you need to generate these sustainability reports at a way higher frequency than the usual once-a-year benchmark – infrequent reporting makes it impossible to factor sustainability into everyday business decisions.
Generate your reports more often, and have them ready for all sorts of meetings – from quarterly board meetings to weekly team meetings, frequent and accurate sustainability data is sure to help you make sure you’re getting the desired results from your sustainability projects.
At the same time, sustainability reporting remains a real challenge for companies. The collecting and processing of sustainability data is currently very time consuming and error-prone. At SustainLab, we say it doesn’t have to be this way.
We’ve built a cutting-edge sustainability management software that is your one-stop-shop for gathering, processing, and visualizing your sustainability data and progress. Set goals and track your progress consistently so you always know where you’re at versus where you need to be.
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