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How to read a sustainability report? (Part 1/n)

Matan Rudis
8 min readJan 7, 2024

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Tens of thousands of sustainability reports are published every year. Long and short, detailed and compact, scientific and prosaic, in English, German, French or other languages — those report defer from each other in a million ways. Those reports usually intend to inform stakeholders about the performance of an organization in different sustainability criteria: some limit their scope to climate and environment, others cover also society and governance, summed together in the soon-stale term “ESG”.

What I learned from reading about 200 of these documents in the past two years, is the one must be systematic and well versed to gain a real value from them. Instead of reading them, you should read through and into them, and even read against them. Right before the 2023/FY24 reports come out, I decided to put together this series to help others figure out the real story behind the graphs, tables, statements and analysis. I hope you find it useful!

In this post I’ll talk about the meta-data. Everything BUT the content of the report, which can tell us a lot about what’s in it, and where we should expect to find surprises or red flags.

Who needs those reports anyway?

If you’re reading this post, the odds are that you’re not the one the report was written for. Those reports are usually made for one or more of the following stakeholders and players:

  • Asset managers, investors and shareholders, who make decisions on their holdings based on ESG performance;
  • Rating analysts, who process those reports to indicators and indices investors work with;
  • Regulators and government agencies, examining the entity’s progress towards sustainable development goals or other requirements based on the jurisdiction;
  • Environment and society NGOs, civil society organizations, think tanks and the media, who want to know how a company meets their areas of interest and concern

At the very bottom of the list are the employees of the company (which could reach 100,000+ people, in some cases) and the general public, common people like us.

What’s in it for you, if you don’t fall into any of those categories? My take is — knowledge and inspiration. Knowledge about how our economy is steered towards a more sustainable reality, and inspiration how to do it.

How to find those reports?

Unless the report was mailed directly to you, you will either navigate the company’s website and find the report in the sustainability / ESG / corporate responsibility section. Some companies create a mini-version of the report embedded in their website, for those who don’t have the time or interest to get the full report. We will skip that — it’s a waste of time, just like watching ads. Instead, we will look for the downloadable PDF version. Usually, googling “[name of company] + sustainability report + PDF” will get you to the document. Make sure to note the year of the report — you want the latest one, unless you’re into comparative reading (which is interesting too but that’s for later).

For this blog I chose McDonald’s 2022–2023 report. I invite you to choose any other report and try the same stages on it.

Judging the book by its cover

Let’s begin on what you see first, the front and back cover.

McDonald’s Corporation Impact Report, 2022–2023

On the front cover we will look for a few things:

  1. The title of the report: here it’s an “impact report”. Impact is a flexible term, it usually sounds positive and purposeful. Companies choose this title instead of “sustainability” or “climate and environment” to signal that their report will take a wider, perhaps more societal, approach, and that they will show us how the good things they contribute to the world dwarf their negative actions.
  2. The issuer of the report: this report was issued by McDonald’s Corporation. This is the mother-company, not a local subsidiary. Sometimes, due to legal issues, subsidiaries publish their reports separately, and if you want to understand the whole picture you have to chase a handful of documents, not necessarily consistent with each other.
  3. Tagline: some reports put a slogan/tagline on the front cover. Maersk, for example, uses “All The Way”. Not less ambitious, BP is “reimagining energy for people and our planet”
BP Sustainability Report, 2021–2022

The Italian food making giant Barilla Group kept it almost equally vague with “the joy of food for a better life” (sounds better in Italiano…) but did call it a sustainability report. So everything is possible, but not unintended.

Barilla Group, 2022

Before we jump to the back cover, here’s something you can’t miss — some reports were designed to be printed. The fact that organizations still print those things makes me automatically doubt their intentions, but maybe it’s just an aesthetic fixation.

The back cover sometimes exists and sometimes doesn’t. In McDonald’s report, there isn’t one, so we can automatically move our magnifying glass to the small letters graveyard called the end of the report, where we find notes about scope and restatement. Usually, if there’s something fishy in the report, the numbers don’t exactly add up, and there are unexplained blackouts, here’s where you’ll find the answer to them.

Get the content from the table of contents

This is where we first meet the structure of the report, and the reports are structured very differently from each other. The structure itself represents the mindset the authors of the report wanted us to adopt, or the “journey” they want to take us through. In an ESG report people expect three chapters, E, S and G, but in reality it’s a fruit salad of topics, sliced and diced together. Let’s take a look again at two examples:

McDonalds
Barilla

Most reports begin with statements and big words by higher ups. They have to.

Next, most reports provide a rundown of their business. What they’re doing, their values, their code of conduct, where they see themselves in the larger ecosystem. Usually there is a lot of hot air here. To save time you can skip it. The only valuable piece here is where they mention their commitments and goals. It’s interesting to compare year-over-year and see if the goals are consistent, if they’ve become more ambitious, or stretched to cover the shortcomings of the last year.

Now look at Barilla’s list of contents. They begin with “products” and “supply chain”, where they explain what they make, how they control quality, and how they engage with their value chain. It is important and I see it as a souvenier from the older version of ESG report, the EHS reports and the CRS reports. In the food industry, however, it does make sense to address those topics first, as they are the core of the business.

McDonald’s. So everyone knows what they produce and sell, no need to introduce. And they know that folks will be upset if climate is pushed into the rear section, so they put it right in the beginning. Now let’s read closer what’s under climate: climate action, packaging, toys and waste, and nature, forests and water. This chapter is 11 pages long, covering 3–4 different SDGs, for a company that emits 53 million tonnes of CO2e annually, more than Norway’s entire emissions. The choice to call the sub-chapter about carbon emissions “climate action”, in my opinion, is an attempt to skip the problem and jump right to the solution.

Barilla is taking a different approach and breaks down the environmental chapter, which addresses carbon emissions, into the areas of impact: packaging, production and logistics. Those three, with the raw materials and supply chain, are all the places where carbon emissions can possibly occur. It will be the reader’s task to follow along and understand the complete picture.

McDonald dedicates the rest of the report to food quality (which has some overlapping aspects with climate/planet) and the other half has to do with its societal impact.

If you look carefully at the top of the page you’ll see the bar listing the chapters, and there’s another one mentioned without having its own box in the table — the “SASB Index”. This is where I begin reading the report, and other professionals will visit before reading a single word in the tale. In Barilla’s report you’ll see it says “GRI Index” under “Annexes”, it’s pretty much the same and we’ll discuss it in one of the next posts.

Signed, sealed, delivered

Last thing to notice before we dive into the content of the report, is the assurance statement from the report’s auditor. It’s not always there but it doesn’t mean that there was no assurance, just that the publisher didn’t think you’d bother to check. I’m so confident about it because most companies aren’t capable of composing those reports on their own and hire consulting firms to help them and the assurance is baked into the process. There’s a lot to learn from those notes: what is the quality of the data? What topics were selected into the report, and what not? Did the report follow the standards, policies and protocols? Here’s an example from BP, assured by Deloitte:

BP assurance statement by Deloitte

I decided not to lay out my amateur psychological theory on the choice of colors and images in sustainability reports, so it seems that we’re ready to start reading the actual content of the report.

To be continued… next stop: climate chapter!

If you found this blog interesting, please go ahead, share it and follow me here on Medium for more climate content. Feel free to share thoughts below, or email me directly: m[at]rudis.earth

Sustainability reporting, climate strategy and carbon accounting are among the services provided by rudis.earth — check out my website for more information.

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Matan Rudis

Climate action, minus the hot air. Climate strategy & more at rudis.earth | Kayaks | Israeli in New York | Twitter: @MatanRudis