The primary visualization in materiality analysis is a scatter plot matrix. In the research phase, we identify the universe of possible issues that can occur at each step of the company’s value chain. These may include, for example, occupational health and safety at the raw materials extraction stage; material waste in manufacturing; greenhouse gas emissions in logistics; diversity and equal opportunity in retail; or supporting healthy choices for consumers.
Many of the issues we target for analysis are drawn from international frameworks for sustainability, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
To understand the issues that are most material to an organization, we study company, industry, and media documentation, and also consult stakeholders inside the company and in the larger operating environment. Impact on company success and the importance to each stakeholder group affect the score and weight of our findings, then we visualize the results by plotting the difference between internal and external perspectives. The Tableau platform helps us communicate these findings with clients. Interactive layers of data allow us to quickly pinpoint major issues and answer follow-on questions.
In the examples that follow, we share results from an analysis we conducted on our own behalf. Not surprisingly, as a small business in the sustainability field, we find that economic issues such as “promoting sustainability,” “client satisfaction,” and “growth and profitability” are the most material to our success, ranking highly among both internal and external stakeholders.
Findings are not always this obvious, of course. For example, materiality analysis we conducted and published for a large, multinational confectionary company around 2010 predicted that cocoa sourcing and consumer health would become major strategic issues due to concerns over child labor in key cocoa-growing regions and the amount of sugar and other ingredients present in their products, respectively.
At the time, those topics were not considered core strategic issues in the industry or mainstream social discourse; however, within five years, the company and its peers had reprioritized sourcing practices to address labor questions and even reformulated their product portfolios to mitigate consumer health concerns. The latter factor is now driving acquisition and product development strategy in the snack industry.
When working with clients, we’ve found incredible value in being able to drill down into subsets of data and focus on similar types of issues.
We can select and review only social issues and see that most fall outside of the concern of external stakeholders, who may currently perceive them as well managed. Of course, a single event could change that perception.