Five Sustainability Report Formats

sustainability report

The pros and cons of five sustainability report formats

What format will your corporate sustainability report (CSR) take? Determining how to present the final product is one of the key decisions to make as you develop the strategy and project plan for a CSR. The format not only has budget and timeline implications, but it also impacts the way your report is organized and written. For example, writing for the web requires a very different approach than a long-form printed copy.

It wasn’t too long ago that most companies simply prepared printed documents and/or a downloadable PDF of the same printed report. But now it is possible to take advantage of newer technologies that offer more sophisticated ways to reach target audiences with your company’s sustainability message.

Having more formats available to use is fantastic, but it also complicates the decision-making process. In order to choose the best option, it is critical to have a strong strategy in place. For example, the strategic prioritization of your sustainability report audience is key to ensuring that you develop a format to effectively engage them. In addition, time and resources need to be carefully considered in order to make sure that your plan won’t overextend your team or budget.

Keeping in mind that you can, and probably should, choose a combination of forms, here are the pros and cons of the key options:

Some companies produce printed copies of their full-length sustainability report.

Pros: A printed version is portable and not dependent on technology. Your readers can bring copies with them to meetings, conferences and sales calls. Many of the executives I’ve worked with like to have a physical copy of the report.

Cons: If the medium really is the message, then a printed report using paper made from trees may appear contrary to your commitment to sustainability. If you do print a report, at a minimum, you should use recycled (100% post-consumer waste if possible) and responsibly sourced (FSC) paper. Also, the project plan needs to factor in printing time, so there will be at least two additional weeks between finalized files and a launch that includes hard copies.

Many companies print a summary version featuring highlights and main messages from the full report.

Pros: This format provides the benefits of a physical copy without using quite as much paper. It can be used effectively with your target audiences who might not be inclined to read the full report. The executive summary also can drive your audience to read the expanded detail provided in the full report.

Cons: An abbreviated version, by definition, does not include the entire span of reported information. Also, printed copies still use paper.

Providing a downloadable version of a print document online is another common format for sustainability reports. Some companies make their report downloadable in sections or in a “build your own” PDF, allowing audiences to focus on the sections that interest them.

Pros: This is a very sustainable, budget-friendly option. One benefit is that paper usage is left to the discretion of your audience. You can make the files available online very quickly, so your timeline can be a bit shorter if this is your primary distribution method.

Cons: There are a lot of technical considerations to take into account when it comes to PDFs. They need to be optimized to ensure timely downloads (we strive to stay under 15MB). They need to be easily read on screen, which tends to mean horizontal layouts that are less efficient in holding content, increasing page count. Additionally, new versions of web browsers hold the PDF on screen before letting you download. Any time a PDF is not viewed in Acrobat Reader, you can be sure to see some glitches in the font or other visuals, which may not represent your brand professionally.

Sustainability reports are generally available somewhere on the company website. But how the report is presented online ranges widely between a basic downloadable PDF and highly sophisticated, interactive online experiences.

Pros: The options are almost limitless in terms of how you want to organize and engage your audiences. In fact, the web allows you to serve up specific content to a wide range of audiences. With the web, it is possible to keep some evergreen content and refresh other content to give your audience a reason to come back regularly.

Cons: From a budget and time perspective, websites are one of the most demanding CSR formats. They require a lot of resources (web-designers, copywriters, programmers), take a lot of time to produce, and are technically very challenging to execute. From a CSR reviewer’s perspective, websites can be ungainly because of the amount of clicks it takes to get to the information needed. We’ve seen websites where the buzz worthy stories are placed up front, and the reporting disclosures, such as progress on goals, buried under layers of navigation. Personally, I think PDF reports are much easier to digest.

A handful of leading companies have begun to produce next generation reports in ways that take advantage of newer technologies and appeal to the increasingly sophisticated preferences of their audiences. These formats represent the future of reporting and usage of these technologies will continue to increase until it becomes the norm.

Pros: The accessibility and interactivity makes these technologies a great way to engage some of your key audiences with your sustainability report.

Cons: It is not yet feasible to reach everyone using only these newer formats because they are not accessible to many potential readers at this point. That means that these cannot yet replace the other formats mentioned here, but will need to be produced in addition. And similar to websites, these new technologies will inevitably complicate your project plan, increase your budget, and require technical expertise from your team.

Determining the format is a key decision that will directly impact the successful execution of your reporting strategy, so it is important to consider it carefully.

You may be interested in reviewing our sustainability report case study for UPS

Emotive Brand is a branding agency.

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