How to Choose Case Studies for Your Corporate Sustainability Report

Let's be honest, sustainability reports can be...dry. Simply reporting facts and figures will make even the most stalwart reader begin to yawn. To combat reader fatigue, it's critical that your sustainability report tell a story. Here are some of the stories that your report might tell:

  • A scrappy entrepreneur starts up his new company by building sustainability into the core of business operations.        
  • A company grapples with worldwide economic uncertainty and struggles to understand what sustainability *really* means to its decision-making processes.        
  • A company commits to achieving true sustainability based on eco-system accounting, and measures for the first time its contextual impact on the natural world.        

Using your sustainability report to tell a story is an advanced practice -- many organizations can't identify their story, let alone talk about it publicly. (This is where the help of a sustainability consultant can help!) It's not completely an either/or proposition, however.

One easy way to begin the storytelling process is through the use of case studies -- a short "snapshot" that doesn't have to neatly fit into the rest of the reporting format. So if your organization is most comfortable following the standard (and often boring) format of the Global Reporting Initiatives, there is still an opportunity to add a bit of flash and interest through the use of strategically placed case studies.

But how do you choose a good case study? We've pulled examples from our 2011 Sustainability Report to demonstrate some of the options:

Explore a Third Party Standard and Its Impact

Chances are good that your organization is using a third-party standard or guideline in your sustainability work. If you are a manufacturer, you may be using the ISO 14001 standard for environmental management systems. If you are a bank, you may be using the IFC Performance Standards. You might belong to the UN Global Compact, or use the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprise, or apply the Global Reporting Initiative's Sustainability Reporting Guidelines to your sustainability report. Choose one, and share what it means for your organization.

Talk About an Organization that You Support

Most organizations have some sort of charitable giving, employee volunteerism, or in-kind support. Rather than just reporting on the total dollars donated, why not share a little bit about one of the organizations or causes that you support? Pro tip: have one of your employees write the case study (e.g. "Why I Volunteer") -- or have the organization you support write the case study (e.g. "Why The Hotel Company is an Important Supporter of Domestic Violence Prevention").

Write About Your Workforce Development Initiatives

It's a secret among sustainability professionals that the REAL audience for your sustainability report is your employees. (Ask first-time reporters where the unexpected benefit was and they will nearly all say that it was a boost in employee morale and engagement.) Why not take an opportunity to highlight one of your workforce programs?

Highlight One of Your Products or Services

While a sustainability report generally includes a high-level overview of the work that your organization does, most reports don't take the time to dive deeply into specifics. But if you offer a particular product or service that has a positive sustainability impact (or has been improved to reduce its negative environmental impact), take the opportunity to explore it in more detail through a case study. If you can quantify the impacts, all the better!

Remember: a case study doesn't necessary need to be tied to a particular sustainability metric. Instead, think of a case study as a sneak peek for readers, a glimpse into the stories of sustainability that make your journey meaningful.