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The importance of 'experience' in sustainability reporting

On launching the sixth instalment of Reporting matters in partnership with WBCSD, Radley Yeldar’s Ashleigh Gay shares her perspective on the state of play in sustainability reporting with WBCSD.

Ashleigh Gay 25 October 2018

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The changes introduced to the Experience criteria recognise the broad range of audience needs when it comes to sustainability reporting – from the technocrat to the communications specialist.  How have things unfolded since?


When we updated the Experience criteria last year, we did it to help companies better serve the needs of the growing range of audiences that demand different types of sustainability-related information, in different ways.


Over the last 12 months, the need for robust reporting that also engages the audience has only become more prevalent.


We’ve seen a marked increase in the number of organisations looking for help to connect with generalist audiences on specific issues, such as with consumers on plastic, both in their reporting and broader communications. At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen the Electronic Single Format Authority announce mandatory electronic filing to improve the accessibility and comparability of reporting.


When it comes to sustainability communications, meeting the needs of generalist and specialist audiences is here to stay. But the truth is, only a handful of companies are successful at getting the balance right.


Only a few companies score top marks when it comes to Story & messaging. Why is it important?


Sustainability is an abstract concept, so it’s little wonder that companies struggle to tell their sustainability story. At the end of the day, organisations put a lot of time and effort into developing their reports, so when used as a strategic communications tool, sustainability reports should be memorable (for the right reasons), interesting and be connected to relevant key audiences.


Organisations that do this well have thought about the sum of their parts and tell a story that extends beyond each of the discrete sections.


They have clarity on why they report, and what they want their audiences to know, feel and do as a result. They know a tagline thrown together at the end of the process isn’t enough.


We work with our clients to help develop a compelling idea or theme, and to evidence this throughout the report – from the front cover to the supporting narrative and the case studies. The aim is to tell a non-generic, inspiring story that sits above robust disclosure. In our experience, the key to success is bringing marketing and brand teams into the conversation at the outset.


One of the indicators looks at 'Compelling design' – what does this really mean?


Design is naturally subjective, but the principles of good design are not. The design should work at a functional level to guide the reader. Truly compelling design will go further, helping to tell an overarching story, drawing the reader in and, like all other communications, acting as an extension of the brand.


Take a look outside the world of reporting for inspiration (I’ve been known to ‘borrow’ in-flight magazines for our creative briefing sessions). We’re big fans of companies that take an editorial approach to design and, when you read as many sustainability reports as we do, they’re the ones that really stick out.


With the growth in online reporting formats, page count is less of an issue. Use bold imagery and text to get your point across, and make sure to signpost to the detail for your specialist audiences. Remember, very few people will read your report from beginning to end, so be sure to use a range of design elements. Consider photography, infographics, heading hierarchies, white space and typeface for starters.


What are some of the pitfalls companies should avoid?


Our research on The New Visual Language for Sustainability found that 19 out of 20 of the world’s leading brands use some form of visual sustainability cliché in their communications.


We’ve all seen them and probably used them. Trees, globes, water droplets (just Google Image search ‘sustainability’ and you’ll know what we mean).


The default is to use ‘stock sustainability’, because sustainability is an abstract concept, and hard to show visually. It probably won’t surprise you that we think the biggest culprit of all is sustainability reports. But it might surprise you to know that seven out of 10 of the world’s leading brands have used images of wind turbines to communicate sustainability, when they weren’t even talking about renewable energy.


As part of our research, we developed some principles to break away from ‘stock sustainability’. My personal favourites are avoiding the ‘eco-friendly’ look and feel and ensuring brand guidelines are applied to sustainability communications the same way that they are in all other communications.


Check out the full list of principles outlined in The New Visual Language for Sustainability on our website.


What role does online reporting have in the future of reporting?


We work with our clients to take an ecosystems approach to reporting, whereby online content is one part of the solution and might sit alongside other mediums such as print, which could still be appropriate for some audiences.


We are firm believers in having ‘one source of the truth’ for sustainability information that’s useful, searchable and engaging – whether that’s an interactive PDF or a full-blown online report.


But online reporting is about more than copying text and diagrams from a sustainability report and putting it on a website. It’s about using your digital presence to better connect with audiences, especially generalists, through things like video and interactive elements. It’s about leveraging all the hard work organisations put in to collecting content by repurposing assets for social channels, all year round. It’s about learning from analytics data on what works, and what doesn’t.


To find out more about Reporting matters and to download the 2018 report, click here.


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