Innovation in sustainability reporting: New design trends and digital solutions for powerful storytelling

Sustainability reporting is a chance for companies to demonstrate commitment to transparency and interact with stakeholders, yet reports are often dense corporate documents few care to read. CSR Asia offers innovative ideas on how to jazz up sustainability reporting.

Woman working on her laptop possibly doing sustainability reporting
Many companies package their sustainability reports in dense corporate documents that very few people care to read. Image:, CC BY 2.0

Companies are facing more demand by regulators, investors and customers to be transparent in their environmental, social and corporate governance. Yet, getting stakeholders to read a company sustainability report is one of the biggest obstacles in sustainability reporting. Companies keep packaging their reporting in dense corporate documents and too often, large amounts of time, money and effort is spent on a report that very few people care to read.

There is a lost opportunity to interact with stakeholders and demonstrate to them that companies are making real, concrete efforts to make their operations sustainable, and to create products and services that put the needs of the consumers first.

When done right, sustainability reports can become a great tool for powerful storytelling. There is an opportunity for companies to approach sustainability reporting strategically, creating real human stories for a wider audience and sharing data in more creative and engaging ways.

Creative ways to share sustainability stories

Increasingly, companies realise the importance of reporting the way they act in terms of environmental management, commitment to local communities and social causes in a way that real people can understand. The more they can convince the public, the media, NGOs and investors of their commitment, the more their credibility will grow.

CSR Asia looked at how leading companies managed to develop creative and informative solutions to liberate the content in their sustainability reports.

1. Improving accessibility

Having the report online and supplementing it with additional formats for a variety of readers scales readability to an increasing number of people accessing content from their home, office and on-the-go. Communications channels can be leveraged to announce the launch of a sustainability report by linking to a report page, informational graphic, featured highlight or interactive tool.

In addition to offering a report online, a “Report Builder” tool can expand readability. This tool is becoming more common to allow readers to customise their version of the report by selecting only the sections that are most relevant to them. Intel’s report builder is accessible from the company’s corporate responsibility microsite to help readers navigate and download key sections in the sustainability report.

2. Developing engaging content

By integrating interactive functionalities into an online sustainability report, companies are able to communicate with their stakeholders in a more engaging way. A number of companies have managed to successfully transform static informational graphics into dynamic data visualisation and brief statements into visual storytelling through videos and blogs. As a result, viewers can absorb more information but also share what they are learning with others on their own social media accounts.

The Swiss company Geberit AG moved away from the materiality matrix displayed as static image, creating an interactive matrix, a more appealing and dynamic way to present their topics. The Geberit matrix consists of different sized rectangular shapes in powerful colours, dividing the aspects in four categories: from “not material” to “most material”.

3. Interactive GRI content index

The new GRI Standards is a chance for companies to re-think the structure and format of the Content Index. “It is still required to include a Context Index, but organisations can use the presentation format they wish” (GRI). In other words: GRI offer companies more flexibility in formatting the Content Index.

Table is the most common format for presenting the GRI Content Index, which makes large amount of text packed into small columns using small font size. 

By developing an interactive GRI Content , using an accordion structure, Shell manages to provide in-depth information while remaining readable and responsive.  Similarly, Merck created an interactive section on its website allowing readers to navigate through different GRI sections and aspects.

4. Digital videos and documentaries

Videos and short documentaries, propose another effective approach to communicate messages in a quick and engaging way.  As an example, Siemens has a wealth of stories to tell and its brand campaign “Answers” tells these stories through high-quality mini-documentaries. The original series of films saw professional filmmakers travel to far flung locations like India and Morocco, where they documented the way Siemen’s products and technology was helping local communities involved in artisanal products and agriculture. A later series of films, now housed on Siemens YouTube channel, focus on other areas of sustainability, including health and the environment.

5. Data visualisation tools

Bosch offers an interactive data analytics tool that react to user requests. Within the same page space, stakeholders can view multiple informational graphics within a single interface (year-over-year comparisons) which, within a print report, would use multiple still images and excessive page space.

BP’s energy charting tool is another great example of user-friendly data visualisation. Users can explore the world of energy by interrogating data, creating charts and downloading reports from the Statistical Review of World Energy.

6. Interactive maps

In 2016, Coca-Cola launched an interactive map that shows sourcing locations for 11 of its top agricultural ingredients. The sourcing map is a great way for Coca-Cola to be more transparent about how products are made, and promote improved sustainable agriculture practices across its supply chain.

“Right now, the map displays our highest-priority ingredients in the countries where they are grown. We have been inspired by other industries, especially apparel, as well as our Honest Tea brand, in transparently communicating about our supply chain in this way. This is the first time we’ve put out this level of detail; if you want to know what country Coca-Cola gets mangoes from for its juices, go to the map. For me, and I hope for others, that’s important.” - Ben Jordan, Director of sustainable agriculture procurement, The Coca-Cola Company

7. Using gamification to raise awareness

In March 2016, Heineken USA launched a first-of-its-kind interactive online experience to share its sustainability highlights. Heineken is inviting people to “immerse” themselves in a series of mini games while learning about the company’s progress, milestones and achievements.

The Brewing a Better World Digital Experience includes three levels, where users “are faced with the challenge of balancing their will to compete with taking care of the world.” They must steer a ship efficiently to reduce emissions, recycle empty bottles and cans in a bar, and make the rounds at a music festival while staying hydrated before safely taking a cab home.

Looking at the future of sustainability reporting

A big advantage of using digital solutions for sustainability reporting is the ability to track the pages, content and functionality that are getting the most traction with users. With the ability to measure and assess, adjustments can be made on an ongoing basis or for the following reporting year. This will help better target those topics resonating with readers.

There is a lost opportunity to interact with stakeholders and demonstrate to them that companies are making real, concrete efforts to make their operations sustainable, and to create products and services that put the needs of the consumers first.

We can predict not only new formats for sustainability reporting but also real-time sustainability data made available for consumers and the general public. GRI released a report in March 2016, “The Next Era of Corporate Disclosure: Digital, Responsible, Interactive”, mapping out the future of sustainability reporting and disclosure.

According to GRI, the future will involve new formats with organisations moving from annual reports to sustainability data exchange, while focusing on major challenges like climate change and human rights. All of this will be coupled with a new role for stakeholders, who will be empowered by almost real-time interactions with companies.

Isabelle Morin is Director, Singapore of CSR Asia and Kavickumar Muruganathan is Project Manager in the Singapore office with CSR Asia. This post is republished from CSR Asia.

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