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Why digital is the heartbeat of our sustainability story

24 January 2014

Why digital is the heartbeat of our sustainability story

At the end of last year I attended the Ethical Corporation Reporting Summit to run a roundtable session on using digital to help companies report on their sustainability performance. I was invited to speak as part of a team of CSR practitioners who have radically evolved their approach to sustainability reporting by putting digital at the heart of the engagement process. 

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Katie Buchanan

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The focus for my roundtable was about going beyond performance disclosure towards genuinely engaging staff in the daily management of our sustainability issues. We’ve learnt a lot over the last few years and the roundtable was a good opportunity to share some of these learnings with fellow practitioners. But the session also saw me answering some burning questions from within the room about our departure from more traditional reporting formats and processes and I thought it might be good to share some of my answers with you in this follow up blog...

1. You don’t currently report to Global Reporting Initiative framework, why is that?

Reporting frameworks have been useful in providing guidance and support that has helped make sustainability reporting standard industry practice. But I don’t think they are the only way to achieve best practice disclosure, and the sheer volume of data collection required can take valuable resources which might be better invested elsewhere.

At Virgin Media we're a small sustainability team and so we’ve chosen to use our resources to focus on embedding accountability across our business and engaging our staff in this process. We also believe that the real goal around reporting should be to have people read and engage with the content you produce. And to achieve this you need to be creative and innovative – the report should be relevant, authentic and true to your material issues and your brand.

That doesn’t mean you can skim over the details though, and so we work closely with data management specialists like Credit 360 to help us ensure that our data gathering and reporting processes are accurate and transparent. Being part of Liberty Global also means that we’re evolving our data collection processes to align with the group approach.

2. I can see how this is good for your staff, but what do your corporate audiences think about your approach?

Prior to becoming part of Liberty Global, we were listed in America, which meant we were scrutinized in different ways from our British-listed counterparts. That said, when we reached out to our corporate stakeholders through our We’re all ears programme, we received a positive response – with the recommendation that we spell out the business case for sustainability more clearly should we wish to engage our investors more closely.

3. Doesn’t this cost a lot more than your conventional approach in terms of time and money?

The main difference now is that our digital, ongoing approach to reporting is part of our day-to-day activity rather than a process that consumes the whole team for a few months. We do spend more now than when we produced a hard-copy report but the reach and impact of our continuous engagement is much greater – and more accountable. When you consider that we’re using our reporting to actively engage our 14,000 members of staff, the business case is pretty compelling.

4. Can you prove that this is a more effective approach to reporting?

A big area of focus for us at the moment is how we measure the impact of our reporting. We are guided by the usual web statistics (which of course you wouldn’t get from a printed report) and we also have an internal employee survey that we use to measure our staff’s response to our approach. Year on year we’ve seen continual growth on the number of employees who feel engaged and part of our sustainability programme but we’re working on finding new matrices for measuring our performance in this area.

At the end of the day, the roundtable really helped reaffirm the reason I do my job and for me it's not all about frameworks or indices or spending my days bogged down in data. Yes, reporting performance is absolutely key and it's important our data is accurate, but for me, it's really about how you use that data to engage your customers and staff to deliver positive change. As sustainability practitioners I think we have to remind ourselves to take a step back and think about how we can shape the data and not just present it. But I'd love to hear what you think…

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