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How to create a sustainability report that people actually want to read

Juliette Child 02 March 2022

Woman statue

“We are committed…”. “For future generations”. “For people and planet”. Sound familiar? 


If, like us, you’re tired of reading the same old clichés when it comes to sustainability communication, it’s no surprise. In our recent research ‘Words that Work: effective language in sustainability communications’, we found that a staggering 98% of Forbes 50 Most Valuable Brands used at least one of the eight clichés we identified. And it’s not just limited to clichés – add these to the unnecessarily technical language and reliance on jargon, and it’s fair to say that good sustainability communications are often hard to find, and often hard to write. 


From a reporting perspective, how can we overcome this issue?


Start by giving yourself and your communications a reality check. Using clichés has become so normal, it’s often hard to spot the issue. Take a step back and assess your sustainability communications. How many clichés did you use in your previous sustainability report? How frequently were they used? Are they prevalent around a certain topic? Assessing your previous report before embarking on the new reporting process will equip you to spot – and avoid – the clichés right from the start.


Some words of caution


First, don’t be alarmed if you come across these clichés. The issues we’ve raised in the research are systemic and endemic, we are only just seeing the scale of it ourselves. We don’t expect all brands to suddenly shift overnight, but it is our hope to see reporting language evolve to be clear, transparent and true to organisations’ brands.


Secondly, the list of clichés shouldn’t be regarded as a list of language never to use. They need to be used with caution, but that doesn’t mean they need to be totally exorcised. The real watch-out is when the language is empty or if excessive clichés are strung together endlessly and without meaning.


We know that reporting is challenging. With many internal stakeholders to manage, introducing new thinking into an already tightly managed process might feel daunting, or maybe you just don’t know where to start. We’ve come up with some practical recommendations to inject the findings of our Words that Work research into your thinking, in order to drive more original, meaningful and impactful reporting.


Set a clear and shared objective


Start by making a clear commitment to improve the effectiveness of your communications by moving away from what we refer to ‘stock sustainability writing’ – that mix of science, corporate ‘business speak’ and strings of unconvincing vague sentiments. We’d recommend aligning the whole reporting team against this objective. This includes your immediate team but also the content owners and those that have the ultimate accountability for the report. If it’s a shared objective, you won’t have to carry the load on your own.


Influence the content gathering process


Learn from your experiences. Take a stark look your previous reporting and consider which areas need to be developed. It is this feedback that you can build into the content gathering process. If a particular section last year looked a bit too vague, challenge your content owners to dig deeper and elevate that interesting content.


In our research we found that over 94% of brands used the cliché “we are committed” as a catchall for anything, whether it is a concrete commitment or not. Make sure that you’re using the word “committed” to reflect the real meaning of the word. Better yet, couple it with the quantitative and qualitative evidence to demonstrate how your commitment translates in practice. Doing so will build trust in your reporting and your brand.


If you find that there isn’t enough substance to support your claim, shift towards more transparent and balanced language to paint a realistic picture. Honesty really is the best policy.


Unify reporting language


As an agency who pioneered annual reporting decades ago, we have read and written our fair share of reports. With sustainability reports, we often find a disconnect between different writing styles depending on the author of the section. It can go from highly technical jargon-filled language in one chapter, to cliché-ridden prose the next. There is a need to unify reporting language.


One way to achieve this is by having one owner that oversees the different sections of the report. We know that taking a cursory view is difficult when dealing with the tight deadlines. But taking the time to review the report as a whole will enable you to spot inconsistencies and remedy in time.  


Every organisation benefits from a team of people with a rich variety of skills and competencies. Make the most of this expertise! Your communications team are well placed to help you achieve consistent tone across your report. Sharing a draft version of the report to someone who isn’t necessarily involved in the reporting process can help you challenge cliché or jargon filled language.


Lastly we’d recommend getting help from a copywriter. We’ve long seen the value of getting help to turn data, strategies and detailed information into a coherent and accessible narrative.


Collaborate closely with the financial reporting team


Our research revealed that sustainability is still too siloed. For example, interviewee and ecolinguistics professor Dr. Arran Stibbe discussed how the environment section of a newspaper might celebrate decreasing sales of diesel cars, while the business section in the same newspaper would lament it as bad for economic growth.


As interest around business’ approach to addressing environmental and social challenges continues to rise, organisations must present a consistent narrative. Yet in reporting, we often see a disconnect across an organisation’s reporting ecosystem.


On the one hand, an annual report may focus on how the business is maximizing profits to benefit investors and shareholders, meanwhile the sustainability report will adamantly try to convince you that the business is committed to creating value for all stakeholders. We even see the same scenario playing out within integrated reports. This disjointed messaging is often a function of the siloed nature of some organisations – where the financial and sustainability teams are separated. Try to communicate more seamlessly to better align the messaging across your reporting suite.


Nobody said it was easy…


But it’s about time we shake things up! Now, more than ever, people are interested in sustainability. We need to take this opportunity to drive more meaningful reporting starting by ditching the jargon and clichéd filled language. Only then will we see reports that people actually want to read.


Our report, “Words that Work – effective language in sustainability communications”, explores what is wrong with how sustainability is written, ten principles for how to fix it, and creative examples of what great looks like. Download the full report here.