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Talking about the pandemic in your sustainability report

For corporate sustainability professionals, it’s reporting season. But this is no ordinary year, and your sustainability report won’t be either. With the pandemic and associated economic downturn, your business probably has experienced major changes — everything from transitioning to remote work and supply chain distribution, to modifying on-site operations compliant with new health and safety guidelines to protect employees, contractors, and customers from COVID-19.

Addressing these unprecedented health and safety concerns in your sustainability report is critical for engaging internal and external stakeholders. But it can be tricky figuring out how to report on these workplace impacts.

Embrace transparency

While transparency is always critical for sustainability reporting, it’s even more important in the era of the coronavirus. Employees, customers, and investors want to know how you are responding to the ongoing pandemic. Make it a specific section in your report.

There are a few ways you can do this: a CEO letter, a case study in the report itself, or in the report’s press release. Whatever route you choose, go into specifics about your response, including how much money your company committed and the actions it took to help employees, customers, and local communities deal with the crisis.

Did your company donate personal protective equipment (PPE) to healthcare workers? Mention that. Did employees receive a stipend to improve their work-from-home stations after your transition to telework? Note that. Did your company increase safety procedures at on-site stores or factories? Discuss them.

You can stick with standard topics ranging from hazard identification, risk assessment, workplace health services, and worker participation and training. But specifically discussing how the pandemic has changed them is crucial.

The traditional “injury rates” and “benefits” sections are still applicable, even in this time. But if you have changed your benefits to accommodate COVID-19-related leave, whether for employees who fall sick or are taking care of sick family members, you should explain that too.

Different data will help tell your story

To tell your story well, you’ll need to include data from the year, and it’s likely that some metrics and measurements will look different thanks to the pandemic.

The metrics important to investors depend on the industry. During this time, retailers’ in-person employee safety measures will look different from tech companies’ new remote work guidelines. But nearly all industries have increased their spending on safety equipment — hand sanitizer and masks for on-site employees, and new ergonomic equipment for remote employees.

Likewise, many companies have upped workplace safety training because protocols have had to shift to address the coronavirus risk. Perhaps you had to hire new safety consultants or contact tracers. These are unforeseen challenges, but they’re important metrics to show investors that you’re committed to taking employee health seriously.

Disclosing the monetary value that you’ve spent on these accommodations doesn’t have to be relegated to your sustainability report either. Some companies are integrating the unforeseen spending on safety measures into their legal filings. According to Suzanne Fallender, Intel’s corporate responsibility director, “We’ve always had our people section: how do we engage employees, how do we measure satisfaction and engagement? We not only reported in our most recent sustainability report, but also in our 10Q, and we worked with our finance team to integrate the content into financial filings.”

Provide explanations for discrepancies in metrics

Investors still want to compare your sustainability report disclosures year-over-year. That’s why including a note about the reason that this year’s numbers might look different is important. It creates both a historical context for this year and alludes to what operations could look like next year.

“Some metrics will have a very wonky or unusual behavior because of 2020,” said Cristina Gil White, vice president of sustainability for Orbia, during a recent Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) webinar. Gil White also mentioned how Orbia’s greenhouse gas emissions might change due to telework.

This explanation also will signal to investors that companies are thinking ahead to next year’s operations and planning for business continuity. That creates a narrative for how your business is able to survive in these challenges, and how it’s positioned to tackle emerging risks. It also can disclose how companies will see their role in economic recovery, Gil White explained.

Bonus: Consider breaking out the report into localized versions

If you work for a multinational company, you’re likely operating in locations experiencing varying levels of infection. This can affect everything from your remote work policies to supplier relationships.

If you have the time and resources, consider breaking out these sustainability reports into smaller versions that specifically address the local markets and communities in which you work. Gil White noted that some of Orbia’s subsidiaries in international markets will create local versions of their sustainability reports, by taking relevant information and translating it.

“Sometimes you have to understand where the strengths of headquarters are and where you add value, and allow the local brands and subsidiaries to take from the report what works for them and create something that’s specifically catered to customers,” she said.

This helps increase the readership of the report if employees in specific offices know that the report is about them and their work. It can also be a reference for customers interacting with your company in specific markets showing how your response to the pandemic helped their community.

”We’ve seen the issues around sustainability change materially,” Tim Mohin, chief executive of GRI, noted during the GRI webinar. “Our materiality analysis figures out what’s the most important thing for our company — but at no time like the present have we seen those issues change so rapidly. Starting with the issues of workplace and human capital, to now the issues of racial justice — these issues came to the front very quickly and most companies had to react in a very quick way.”

“We’ve seen the interest from inside and outside the company rise like never before,” he added.

To learn more about how to talk about COVID-19 during your next sustainability report, please contact our team at

Talking about the pandemic in your sustainability report
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