How to write a sustainability report? 6 steps to get started!

What is a sustainability report and why does reporting matter?

A sustainability report presents information about the environmental, social and economic performance of your university or college.

Writing a sustainability report offers you multiple benefits:

  • Create transparency around your organisation’s sustainability impacts,
  • Start a conversation with key stakeholders,
  • Set a baseline to measure changes in the future,
  • And identify actions to improve your organisation’s sustainability performance.

Let’s have a look at six steps you can take to develop your sustainability report:

1. Set your goals before you start

Before you dive into the hard work, you should think about what you want to accomplish.

If you’re just getting started, you could just do a simple assessment. In this case, you could just:

If on the other hand, you want to create a comprehensive assessment, you will have to think bigger. Then, you will need to assess the environmental, social and economic impacts of your organisation regarding its education, research, operations, governance and community engagement.

Make a plan before you get started with your sustainability report

Set your goals before you get started

2. Identify issues and choose indicators

Sustainability is a broad topic. In your report, you should focus on the most important sustainability issues of your university. For example:

  • A research-intensive university should look at the impacts of its laboratories,
  • An international university should look at the impact of student and staff travel,
  • A university in a dry area should look at its water footprint.

If you are not sure what the most important sustainability issues of your university are, you should talk to people to find out what they think.

For example, you could organise a workshop with staff and students to identify what sustainability issues are most relevant.

Once you’ve identified what issues are important, you can choose indicators to measure them. For example:

  • Electricity consumption of laboratories,
  • CO2 emissions from student and staff travel,
  • Water consumption per building or person.

Tip: Browse the indicator list of the University Sustainability Assessment Framework for inspiration.

3. Expect trouble in data collection

Once you’ve chosen your indicators, you need to go out and collect data on them. Depending on the indicators you use, you may have to get information from:

  • Facility and energy managers,
  • Department heads,
  • The university website,
  • A sustainability manager,
  • Student representatives or groups,
  • Or the procurement or finance departments.

This allows you to talk to and meet many different people at your university.

While this can be fun, you might also run into trouble:

  • You will need to chase people to give you the information,
  • You may get numbers in different formats,
  • And you have to watch out for calculation mistakes which you and others might make.

Don’t get frustrated! Encountering these barriers is normal and part of the process.

Tip: Store the data and make your calculations in a structured database, for example using the database template of the University Sustainability Assessment Framework.

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4. Analyse the data critically

Unfortunately, many sustainability reports end up as nice brochures with a lot of smiling people and flashy projects. They are missing a critical analysis of how well the organisation is actually doing regarding sustainability.

Of course, your position within the university – whether you are a student, staff member or external consultant – influences how critical you can be. But, you should be careful not to produce a marketing brochure.

As a first step, you should make sure that you have quantitative data to present. Don’t only list the exciting sustainability projects the university is doing. Include numbers like:

  • Electricity and gas usage,
  • Waste production,
  • Water consumption,
  • CO2e emissions,
  • Number of sustainability courses,
  • Students enrolled in these courses.

You can analyse the data that you collect, by:

  • Presenting totals,
  • Calculating ratios to put numbers into perspective,
  • Identifying and explaining trends,
  • Stating limitations in your data and methodology.

If you do this, then your report will already be much more insightful than most sustainability reports.

5. State key observations

Next, you should draw conclusions and make recommendations, to make your insights actionable. Ask yourself:

  • Where is the organisation doing well?
  • What are critical areas of improvement?
  • What interesting or suprising facts did you learn?
  • How do you recommend the organisation moves forward?

These conclusions and recommendations allow stakeholders to act upon the main lessons from your report.

You should share these insights:

  • In the conclusion, summary or recommendation section of the report,
  • As well as any presentations or social media posts you make.
Include specific recommendations in your report, like introducing waste separation

Include specific recommendations in your report, like introducing waste separation

6. Communicate in a way that people will listen

When was the last time that you actually read a long sustainability report in detail?

Most reports don’t reach their audience. They end up as long PDF documents in the downloads section of a website.

To reach your audience, you could share your findings in the following formats:

  • An interactive website
  • A policy brief,
  • A well-designed infographic,
  • Or a presentation or a video.

Use these formats as an addition or alternative to a PDF document.

You should also actively share and spread the insights through:

  • Presentations in front of the university council or management teams,
  • One-on-one meetings with decision-makers,
  • Newsletters and mailing-lists,
  • Social media posts,
  • Workshops,
  • Or lunch or keynote presentations.

Don’t expect people to actually take the time to read the report you send them via email. You actually need to go to them and tell them in person what you learned.

Start a Green Office and write a sustainability report

Examples of university sustainability reports

1. University of Gloucestershire

This is a standard sustainability report, covering multiple areas and written by the university’s sustainability team. You can access the English language report here.

Strengths:

  • A great example of a concise report, covering the main elements of sustainability.
  • Includes beautiful and informative infographics.
  • Regarding campus operations, the document provides a good overview based on specific indicators.

Weaknesses:

  • Does not go into detail on education and research.
  • Missing a deeper analysis and specific recommendations.
2. Maastricht University

The sustainability progress report of Maastricht University was drafted by the student-led Green Office of the university. The reporting of the Green Office was also further developed into the University Sustainability Assessment Framework. You can access the English language report here.

Strengths

Weakness

  • No clear overview of actionable recommendations.
Maastricht University's sustainability report was written by the student-led Green Office

Maastricht University’s sustainability progress report was written by the student-led Green Office

3. University of Hamburg

Similarly to Maastricht University, the report of the University of Hamburg was written by students. In cooperation with the university administration, the local oikos chapter drafted the report. It is based on GRI indicators and supplemented with indicators which the authors determined themselves. You can access the report here (only in German).

Strengths

  • Very extensive – covering social, environmental and economic issues, as well as education, research and knowledge transfer.
  • Very critical.
  • Fully indicator and evidence-based.
  • Specific recommendations for improvements.

Weakness

  • No overall conclusions.
4. University of Ghent

The sustainability report of the University of Ghent was drafted by the student and staff-led Green Office of the university, as a supplement to the university’s sustainability policy. The report is based on the GRI framework. You can access the English language report here.

Strengths

  • Every section is closely linked to the university’s sustainability goals.
  • Additionally to covering indicators, the report rates how much progress was made towards each of the goals.
  • Good overview of actions taken by the university.

Weakness

  • No deeper analysis of long-term trends.
Students and staff are discussing the future of sustainability at Ghent University

Students and staff are discussing the future of sustainability at Ghent University

5. University of London

The sustainability report of the University of London takes the form of an online presentation. It was created by the university’s sustainability manager. You can access the English language report here.

Strengths

  • Interactive online report that is easy to share.
  • Concise, but covering the most important indicators for operations.

Weakness

  • No coverage of education and research.
Start a Green Office and write a sustainability report

Photos by the student-led Green Office at Ghent University and Maastricht University, and by Dave Goodman.