Avril Lavigne’s Rules of Sustainability Reporting...

According to Spotify, my most listened-to song of 2023 was Complicated, by Avril Lavigne.

Don’t worry. There’s a good reason.

I first played it on 24 July, and I have listened to it (at least!) 13 times since then.

20 February 2024 | Five minutes

By Joshua Domb

I was on Vancouver Island in Canada and had spent the day at a museum in the town of Nanaimo, where I had heard a song from Avril’s 2002 debut studio album, Let Go (the best-selling album of the 21st century by a Canadian artist), playing in the background. Let Go was the first album I ever bought, and when I got back to my Air BnB later that day I fired up Spotify to revisit a few classics from my childhood.




My 2023 Spotify wrapped report. Incontrovertible proof of my excellent taste in music…



Admittedly, the opening lyrics of Complicated aren’t a linguistic work of genius:


Uh huh, life’s like this
Uh huh, uh huh, that’s the way it is
‘Cause life’s like this
Uh huh, uh huh, that’s the way it is


Nonetheless, the first twenty seconds of that song came to be one of the defining sounds of the punk-pop scene of the early 2000s (at the time of writing this article, Complicated has racked up more than 746 million listens on Spotify), and the moody acoustic guitar progression that accompanies the intro is immediately recognisable amongst millennials like me.


At its heart, Complicated is a song about authenticity, and someone pretending to be something that they are not. I suspect that might be why it resonated with so many people.


But for me, coming back to that song for the first time in years, when the concept for what is now Gen-R Law was fermenting in my brain and my head was awash with topics like climate change, Environment, Social & Governance (ESG), greenwashing and corporate responsibility, the song played quite differently.


Sustainability Reporting


Most major businesses today publish some form of sustainability report (sometimes using the heading ‘ESG’ ‘CSR’ or similar, rather than ‘Sustainability’). These reports cover a wide range of topics which go well beyond just environmental issues.


The approach taken and granularity of detail provided in modern sustainability reports varies significantly between companies and industries. This variety makes sense. Some companies have operations in fewer countries, with lesser or more easily manageable environmental impacts in circumstances that are less likely to throw up governance or human rights issues, all of which is consistent with a shorter sustainability report. Flipped on its head, and readers expect a longer and more detailed report, where a greater range of sustainability issues are explored in more depth.


Getting these reports right is difficult; there is no one-size-fits-all all approach or generic checklist to work from. But whilst listening to Complicated for the first time in years, I couldn’t help but feel that Avril Lavigne had offered some helpful guidelines for life, and for sustainability reporting!


So, if your business does not yet publish a sustainability report, or if you are looking to refresh or refine your report, here are a few useful rules of thumb, lifted straight from the lyrics of Complicated, a song written by a 17-year-old Avril which was nominated for two Grammy Awards and voted the 8th best song of the decade in a readers’ poll by Rolling Stone.



1 – “Chill out, what ya yellin’ for?


A good sustainability report should feel and read like a conversation between a company and its stakeholders, not a lecture.


If a report has a sense that it is preaching or shouting for attention, then the balance and tone are probably off.



2 – “And if, you could only let it be, you will see I like you the way you are


Customers, investors and other stakeholders who are taking the time to read your sustainability report are generally going to be friendly faces. They have come to your businesses, and are taking an interest in your sustainability journey, because they like you and your brand.


A sustainability report shouldn’t be an attempt to re-brand the company or present an image which is unfamiliar to your key stakeholders, and sustainability is not about entirely re-inventing your brand, image or core product. It is about staying true to those things which won the interest and loyalty of your customers and investors, whilst also working to deliver those products and services with less negative impact (or even a net positive impact!) on the communities that you serve and ecosystems that your business relies upon.



3 – “You’re watching your back
Like you can’t relax
You try to be cool
You look like a fool to me


Every claim or assertion made in a sustainability report should be backed by appropriate and scientifically valid evidence. If your report claims that you have made an X% reduction in CO2 emissions, water consumption or waste generated, then you had better make sure you have the evidence available to support that claim. It need not necessarily go into the report itself – but have it ready should someone ask to see it.


Remember that sustainability reports are representations of certain facts and matters to a range of key stakeholders, which those stakeholders are increasingly relying upon when making purchasing and investment decisions. If a statement in your draft report has you watching your back like you can’t relax, find the evidence to support that statement or take it out.


And remember that if you try to be cool when you can’t back it up, you will probably end up looking like a fool to readers.



4 – “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?


This one is good advice for life and business generally, but invariably applies to sustainability reports also.


Remember that the majority of your readers are not likely to be experts on ESG, sustainability, principles of a circular economy or biodiversity. If you find yourself having to read something twice or you need to check the meaning of certain words, terms or acronyms as you review the report, it is probably too complicated.



5 – “I see the way you’re acting like you’re somebody else Gets me frustrated


Making a business truly sustainable is a difficult journey to go on, particularly in the so-called ‘hard to abate’ sectors where we do not yet have all of the technologies that we need to decarbonise in a cost-effective way.


If you are an airline, shipping company, beef or dairy producer, steel or cement manufacturer (to give a few obvious examples), then a sustainability report which presents these activities as low emissions, sustainable enterprises are likely to get your key stakeholders – and increasingly active regulators, frustrated.


Own your key business activities, be honest about the scale of certain challenges and be willing to admit where you do not yet have the answers. Explain clearly how you are working on these challenges (perhaps as part of an industry-wide initiative) and set out your sustainability roadmap to the best of your ability. Above all, do not act like you’re somebody else.



6 – “Honesty and promise me I’m never gonna find you faking. No, no, no.


This is the final line of Complicated, and a golden rule of both authenticity and sustainability reporting. Above all, keep your report honest, and make sure that nothing will leave readers feeling like they have been misled or found you faking. No, no, no.



So there you have it. Avril Lavigne’s rules of sustainability reporting, and the reason why I listened to Complicated (at least!) 13 times in 2023.


And as Spotify pointed out in my 2023 wrapped report – it still sounds perfect.

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