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The Future of Sustainability Reporting: Action and Interaction

By: Candace Hodder
Published April 2011 
3rd Place GRI Feature Article Competition

As corporate social responsibility (CSR) communications continue to grow in popularity, the bar for reporting is raised higher and higher.

Telling your company’s story through a CSR report, which was once considered the primary end in itself, is increasingly becoming just one component of a full sustainability communications strategy. Capturing public attention with dynamic content and harnessing public participation through online interaction are increasingly prevalent trends in the CSR community. As more and more companies expand their sustainability reporting efforts, these trends will lead companies in a more dynamic and interactive direction.

Capturing Public Attention

As one of the world’s most prominent media companies, we may have expected UK-based Virgin Media to communicate their sustainability efforts through a video-based website. But even non-media companies are employing videos and interactive web content to attract audiences for their sustainability stories.

For example, U.S. companies like Burt’s Bees and Walmart pepper in video footage to their online CSR reports to highlight particular aspects of their operations. And companies like Gap and Dole have created dynamic web-based maps on their CSR sites to offer their consumers visual glimpses into the factories and farms behind their products.

Entertaining, “behind-the-scenes” video footage can capture public interest better than lengthy traditional written CSR reports, and may help to make stakeholders feel more connected to a company’s operating principles and on-the-ground working conditions. Increased use of entertaining video content does pose a risk, however: by reducing complex issues to short video segments, how can we be sure we are seeing the full picture of a company’s sustainability performance?

Companies endeavoring to generate interactive content will have to navigate this issue, and find ways to ensure that their story is not reduced to selective sound bytes. We may also see more companies following the lead of UK-based company Solarcentury, who communicates their entire CSR report in narrated video form.

Seeking Public Participation

Once they have captured public attention, these companies have another question to face: how much should they use these online channels to work directly with the public to achieve CSR goals?

Forward-thinking companies like Timberland are using online communications to actively seek public input on their CSR strategy. Timberland’s online forum Voices of Challenge invites stakeholders to contribute ideas to help solve CSR challenges facing the company and the broader business community.
But the company that is perhaps most deserving of extra credit this year for using creative online communications to work directly with stakeholders on sustainability is Frito-Lay Canada.

The company’s Sun Chips brand made a lot of noise this year when it launched a compostable chip bag, which generated countless consumer complaints because it was so loud when handled.

In the US, the company pulled the bag from shelves for redevelopment. In Canada, however, Sun Chips chose to communicate directly with their consumers about the problem in a fun and punchy online video. In the video, their Sustainability Director puts the slightly inconvenient package in context, teaching the public about the environmental benefits of the bag and asking them to work with Sun Chips to accept a bit of extra loudness for the greater good.

Dynamic or interactive content may be the best way for companies to do justice to innovative CSR strategies. And if, like Sun Chips, a company’s strategies require their consumers to make trade-offs, active and entertaining communication directly to stakeholders becomes all the more important.

The future of sustainability reporting is active and interactive. Leading companies are moving beyond the report and encouraging the audience to tune in, chime in, and to help contribute to their company’s progress on corporate responsibility.

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