The term materiality in a sustainability context has originally been adopted from the world of finance helping companies with the reporting of last year’s results. It’s a shame though to only use the results for a view at the past and not to use them for a forward look. 

And that’s where Alice in Wonderland comes in – or more specifically, the full refrain of the Dodo Bird’s Caucus race from Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland:

“Backward, forward, outward, inward
Bottom to the top
Never a beginning
There can never be a stop”

 

Backward, forward

Materiality assessments traditionally help companies shape their reporting through a backward view by identifying the most material issues that need to be included in reporting. But the rich information that has been gathered to view the past can also be called on to give a forward look. In fact, the overall strategy can be influenced by focusing on the most material issues to better define goals, targets and set meaningful KPIs.

“Backward, forward…” then translates into “Report and strategise”.

Outward, inward – bottom to the top

“Inward, outward – bottom to the top” reflects the opportunities to use materiality to involve range of stakeholders. While the Integrated Reporting Framework makes this a straightforward choice – investors only – a broader view will inevitably add depth and perspective to the assessment.

Going broader and involving a wider range of stakeholders, such as local communities, NGOs, clients and investors, sets businesses up for both standard and integrated reporting options and provides richer information for the forward look. We also recommend you collect useful insight from internal stakeholders, from apprentices right through to the C-Level.

Never a beginning

Even if you are just planning your first materiality assessment, there is plenty of existing information you may already have in your organisation. Existing risk mappings, relationships with stakeholders, existing data from staff, client surveys and of course the UN Sustainable Development Goals are all relevant input.

UN Sustainable Development Goals
 

There can never be a stop

It’s the start of a journey. Note: this doesn’t mean the full process has to be repeated every year! But what the Dodo Bird’s thinking does suggest is that there is ongoing value in ongoing enquiry, and that the best enquiry exists in four dimensions: Backward, forward, outward, inward!