ARTICLE • 5 min

Kickstart Your Sustainability Journey: The Power of Materiality Assessments

In today's business landscape, sustainability has become an essential component in corporate strategy, operations, and reporting. More companies than ever before are pursuing a triple bottom line – better outcomes for people, planet, and profit. By maximizing all three bottom lines, they can have a positive impact on the world while still improving financial performance. 

For long, this approach to sustainability was primarily a strategic imperative. Yet today, corporates also face a compliance imperative where sustainability is no longer just a strategic choice (eg. EU-based companies, and those with links to the EU, are facing complex sustainability reporting challenges).

Whether the corporate sustainability driver is strategic or compliance based – and often it’s both, starting the sustainability journey remains a significant challenge. With a plethora of frameworks, regulations, and opinions on how to get started, finding the right place to start can be overwhelming. Many companies, eager to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, often make hasty decisions that may not align with corporate and stakeholder priorities.

One common misstep is beginning the journey uninformed of what’s really important to the business. Heedlessly picking a handful of sustainability matters that seem important is a common knee-jerk reaction that might not address the most pressing issues. This “Captain’s Call” – in which an executive handpicks sustainability focus areas – lacks procedure, objectivity, rigor, diversity of views, and stakeholder inputs. Still, it remains quite common.

This is where a materiality assessment comes into play, serving as a strategic starting point that ensures sustainability efforts are relevant, meaningful, and impactful. Here’s why starting with a materiality assessment is the best approach.

Understanding materiality assessments

A materiality assessment is the process used to identify and prioritize the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues that are most significant to a company's stakeholders and long-term success. The assessment helps businesses understand which sustainability topics matter most to their stakeholders (including investors, customers, employees, consumers, etc.), where they have the most significant impacts on the world (people and planet–often referred to as impact materiality), and where they face the greatest sustainability-related risks and opportunities to financial performance (profit–often referred to as financial materiality). When an organization looks at both perspectives (impact and financial materiality), it is called a ‘double materiality assessment’.

Why materiality matters 

The materiality of sustainability matters lays the foundation for ESG reporting (ie. disclosing policies, actions, and metrics) but its importance doesn’t end there. Determining material sustainability matters informs strategy (both corporate and sustainability), supports target and goal setting, drives stakeholder engagement, sets the practical sustainability agenda (which programs, policies, and initiatives to implement), and enhances operational excellence (what can we do greener, cleaner, and more efficiently).

Informing strategic decision-making

A materiality assessment provides a data-driven foundation for strategic decision-making. It helps businesses identify which sustainability issues pose the greatest impacts, risks, and opportunities, enabling them to develop more effective and targeted sustainability strategies. This strategic approach not only enhances performance but also ensures compliance with relevant frameworks and regulations. It also elevates sustainability to the strategic and governance levels, ensuring there is buy-in.

Making sustainability initiatives relevant

Jumping into sustainability initiatives without a clear understanding of material issues can lead to wasted time and resources–as well as missed opportunities. For instance, while GHG emissions are a critical aspect of sustainability, they may not be the most pressing issues for every organization. A company might find that it has greater impacts on issues like water management, supply chain ethics, or community engagement. By conducting a materiality assessment first, companies can target their efforts and avoid investing in areas that are not a priority or do not resonate with stakeholders, thus optimizing their sustainability investments.

Enhancing reporting accuracy and credibility

Starting with a materiality assessment enhances the accuracy and credibility of sustainability reporting. Companies can confidently report on the issues that are most material to their business and stakeholders, making their reports more relevant and impactful. This credibility is crucial for building trust with stakeholders and meeting the expectations of investors, regulatory bodies, and sustainability frameworks.

Directives like the European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) require a double materiality assessment for compliance. CSRD double materiality is best practice and has become the gold standard for materiality assessments and sustainability disclosures so it is safe to assume other regulators will follow suit.

Aligning with stakeholder priorities

A best practice materiality assessment includes effective and targeted stakeholder engagement. This means getting the views of stakeholders that are affected by the organization’s impacts. Those stakeholders could be internal (eg. employees) or external (eg. local communities) to the business. It also includes the views of experts on particular topical areas, impacts you’re having, or specific sustainability-related risks (eg. subject-matter experts, non-governmental research bodies, or community-based organizations).

By engaging with stakeholders and understanding their concerns, companies can focus their sustainability efforts on the issues that truly matter. This targeted approach not only fosters trust and transparency but also drives the company's ability to elevate and prioritize the priorities that matter most to stakeholders–enhancing reputation and competitive advantage in the process.

Simplifying the complexity with Socialsuite

Embarking on a sustainability journey can be complex, but putting materiality first simplifies the process. Socialsuite’s software provides a comprehensive platform for conducting double materiality assessments, helping companies identify and prioritize their most significant ESG issues. The software's user-friendly interface and robust engagement tools enable businesses to efficiently gather targeted stakeholder input, analyze data, and make informed decisions.

Moreover, Socialsuite's software was built to align with the CSRD requirements and incorporates various other sustainability frameworks and reporting standards, ensuring that companies can easily align their efforts with industry best practices. Our platform was designed by sustainability experts to alleviate the complexity and confusion associated with navigating the current sustainability landscape.

Getting started

Starting your sustainability reporting and compliance journey with a materiality assessment is not just a smart strategy; it's essential for ensuring meaningful and impactful results. By informing strategic decision-making, making sustainability initiatives relevant, enhancing reporting accuracy and credibility, and aligning with stakeholder priorities, companies can build a strong foundation for their sustainability efforts. Socialsuite's materiality software makes this process straightforward and effective, providing the tools and insights needed to succeed in today's dynamic business environment. Embrace a materiality-first approach and set your company on the path to sustainable success with Socialsuite.

Dr. Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom
Chief Impact Officer
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