David Korngold, Associate, Advisory Services, BSR

Many companies start their sustainability strategy by developing a materiality matrix: a graphical assessment of a company’s most salient sustainability issues that plots potential issues related to business success (x axis) and importance to stakeholders/sustainability (y axis).

Unfortunately, it can be easy for the materiality matrix to become a cage—a lockbox for good intentions that never see the light of day. One company might spend a lot of time developing the matrix, but never do anything with it. Another might rush to put the matrix on paper but fail to use the process to obtain valuable input and commitments. Yet another might fill out the two axes and then discard them because the output does not address other dimensions of concern.

The good news is that companies can unlock the cage and unleash materiality to propel sustainability.

Here are six tips to avoid getting trapped in the cage:

  1. Don’t stop there! Materiality is not an end unto itself; it’s a tool for finding priority areas where your company can advance sustainability in alignment with its business. Use materiality as the starting point for developing an integrated business strategy and a sustainability report that resonates with stakeholders.
  2. Share it. If you simply leave the matrix in your report or stick it in a drawer, you guarantee a lockdown. Instead, use it to spark conversations and create connections. For example, work with your sales team so they can use it as a tool to build relationships with sustainability-minded customers.
  3. Use different outputs for different audiences. Tailor the outputs to address different audiences’ interests. For example, consider giving your environmental safety team a version that includes just the environmental issues.
  4. Look at it in 3D. The traditional materiality matrix comprises two axes, but prioritizing sustainability issues often requires looking at more variables. That’s why BSR’s materiality tool can graphically incorporate other dimensions that tailor the matrix to individual needs and concerns. For example, issues can be represented as “bubbles” of varying sizes to show additional information such as performance gaps.
  5. Get value from the process. The process of developing a materiality matrix can help you involve internal and external stakeholders to learn from them, garner support, and lay a foundation for future engagement. If you incorporate valuable input from the head of supply chain, for instance, he or she may become an ally in your future supply chain sustainability efforts.
  6. Take a balanced view of low-likelihood risks. Companies sometimes get bogged down in concerns over low-likelihood risks that have big headline potential. While it is crucial to be vigilant in considering such issues, companies must also be aware that almost any issue could blow up into a major problem. The key is to have thoughtful discussions about which issues merit monitoring and attention versus those that should be top priorities for flagship sustainability efforts.