Module 2: Sections

We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean.
But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.

– Mother Teresa

How are sustainability reports organized?

This module reviews the parts or sections normally found in a sustainability report. Initially, when organizations decided to provide an accounting of their social and environmental activities to their stakeholders, they were unsure of how to proceed. They struggled to determine the best layout and order of the topics. There were many questions to ask.

  • What sections should the report have?
  • In what sequence should the information be presented?
  • How long should the report be?
  • How technical should the report be?
  • Who are our stakeholders?
  • What do our stakeholders understand about our operations?

Early reports varied greatly and sometimes were referred to as green glossies because they had many pictures and very little information that was quantified in charts and graphs. Now, because some organizations have been reporting for 15-20 years, inexperienced organizations will look to the experienced organizations to determine how to prepare their reports.

After several years of experimentation, the reports have evolved to hold some similarities to financial annual reports, yet maintaining their own unique characteristics. The work of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) in making available a set of guidelines for organizations to follow has been instrumental in standardizing format and content among reports throughout the world.

Fourteen sections frequently found in sustainability reports are covered in this module.

Please click on the illustration to enlarge.

Are sustainability reports similar to financial reports?

Organizations initially targeted their sustainability information to stakeholders who were less interested in financial information; therefore the content and organization was quite different from financial annual reports. Now, decision makers of all types are finding environmental and social information integral to understanding the performance of the organization. Therefore, sustainability reports have taken on certain characteristics found also in financial annual reports.

This module does the following:

  • Explains the purpose of each major section of a financial annual report.
  • Compares the section to the same section in a sustainability report.
  • Provides examples of each section from organizations’ sustainability reports:
    What Happens in Practice?
  • Indicates in how many reports the section can be found: Fast Facts
  • Provides quotations about the section from stakeholders and organizations.
    What Companies Say…
    What Stakeholders Say…

The report sections are discussed in the order most frequently found in sustainability reports. Often reference is made to other modules in this set that will explain the theme or section more completely.