Q. What’s the state of play in digital sustainability reporting this year?
The days when phones were just used to make calls are a distant memory. Mobile phones are changing lives all over the world, from taxi ownership models to banking without infrastructure.
Corporate sustainability has undoubtedly benefited from this digital revolution. Data collection systems have transformed the accuracy and reliability of non-financial data, social media platforms are helping to mainstream the communication of sustainability issues, and crowd-sourcing of innovative sustainable solutions to corporate challenges has become more commonplace.
But despite the rapid development of new technologies and constant innovation in the digital space, reporting hasn’t been keeping up. It’s not that the ambition isn’t there. Businesses know that stakeholders increasingly engage online. They know that transparency and regular communication are key. And they see the potential of digital platforms in helping to integrate financial and non-financial information to tell one consistent and connected story. Yet the same hurdles still exist.
Q. What are those hurdles?
Budget constraints or excessive costs. The budget required to set up a digital first approach to sustainability reporting is sometimes seen as prohibitive. Coupled with this, the sustainability
and communications teams responsible for producing sustainability reports often have a smaller budget allocated to them than their colleagues in other departments. As a result, the reporting process tends to stick to a known formula – print or PDF.
Accommodating assurance needs is more difficult in a real time environment. Most sustainability professionals recognize the value of assurance and its role in improving the reliability and accuracy of sustainability reports. But questions still exist about the application of assurance to reports created in real-time, in a dynamic digital space. We recommend including your assurance provider in your discussions about online reporting; and we are excited to see how the process develops to address these challenges.
The audience remains highly diverse, which makes it difficult to meet different user needs through a one-size-fits-all approach. Many users, like investors for example, prefer to read a PDF report that summarizes a company’s strategy, performance and management approach in a single, linear document, with clear signposting to cross-reference against the numerous technical standards and frameworks. Whereas for less technical users, learning about a company’s sustainability story online by embarking on their own unique journey through a company’s web pages can be a richer, more fulfilling experience. In addition, some jurisdictions prescribe the format to be used if combined with other mainstream reports and many also need to be available in print medium.
Q. In what ways has the digital revolution changed the way businesses communicate sustainability in the last four years since Reporting matters began?
Despite such hurdles, there are some great examples of digital sustainability reporting.
Connectivity has really strengthened. The last four years have seen a real shift towards the recognition that sustainability outcomes and performance must be more embedded within core business; and digital tools have certainly helped to facilitate this. Both interactivity and sharing via social media help to connect different content platforms and tell a consistent story.
This new level of digital connectivity presents a considerable opportunity for the communication of companies’ approaches to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SABMiller’s approach
showcases such potential. By connecting the SDGs to the organization’s sustainability strategy using an interactive graphic, SABMiller directs users to relevant content elsewhere on the site.
Sustainability content is coming to life. Sustainability is about the way a business operates and the impact it has on society and the environment around it. It’s an umbrella term for a myriad of living, breathing issues that have long been crying out for an injection of life into the way they are communicated, in order to ensure the messages
resonate with audiences far beyond the traditional sustainability practitioner. Those organizations that have taken sustainability content out of the traditional parameters of a PDF report and into the dynamic digital space have noted that sustainability content has become “interesting” content to a much broader range of audiences.
Q. What advice would you give companies that are transitioning to a digital approach?
It’s important to make sure that your digital functionality is meaningful. With so many options to play with, companies often fall into the trap of using widgets and devices for the sake of it, rather than because they significantly enhance the user’s experience. We recommend a simple test: if you’re expecting a user to click on something, ask yourself whether the information they’re rewarded with is useful.
Arguably, it’s also even more important to organize your content in a logical way online. Just as you would prepare a pagination plan before embarking on a printed report, make sure that you plan the user’s journey through your content, ensuring it is joined up and accessible. Avoid dead ends and make sure your links direct readers to relevant information
Q. How do you foresee the future evolution of digital sustainability reporting?
Market forces will dictate how the reporting process works and the means by which reports are created. But as more companies transition towards digital reporting, the hurdles will become easier to overcome and the quality of digital reporting will improve.
It’s inevitable that at some point digital skills and the appetite for digital content will become more commonplace, to the point where “digital communications” simply become “communications”.