Writing Disruptive Corporate Responsibility Reports

by | Jun 6, 2012

A while ago my firm was hired to, as the strategy brief challenged, “…imagine the future of the sustainability report. Be disruptive.” The client asked us to consider this evolution and made it clear that a perfectly acceptable answer could be, “there is no future for the sustainability report.”

The “there is no future” option was tempting. And many leaders in the space are more than willing to let the idea of corporate responsibility (CR) reporting fall away and be replaced with the more comprehensive and maybe holistic integrated reporting (IR). Last year, Hannah Jones, vice president of sustainable business and innovation for Nike Inc., said her company will soon “jettison the language of sustainability, and simply talk about value creation.” Ultimately, we decided that was a cop-out, and potentially simply an example of shifting (as opposed to jettisoning) of the language of sustainability itself.

Great minds collided at our shop as each team took positions arguing for and against what paths CR reporting could take. It got emotional, theoretical, aspirational, and occasionally it got practical. Some wanted to invent technology for users to engage with CR content, others were focused on the boundaries of reports, and still others decided that the report itself was dead but that content from the report needed to become “reassemble-able” to suit the reader’s needs better. “The report is dead, long live reporting” became their mantra.

As a way into this re-imagining of the CR report, we looked at the 5 common elements in reporting. We dissected audience (who reads these things anyway), medium (what’s the best modern form for delivery – small bites, video, pound of paper, embedded in brand content), boundaries (how far out, how far in), and frequency (annual, bi-annual, monthly, etc.). But the most cerebral fistfight of the project came during the topic of authorship (who writes these reports).

It seemed clear from our research on the language of sustainability that most CR reports are actually a Sybil-esque multitude of voices glued together with brand standards. Or, they are ghost-written by consultants. Rest assured – if this were a stone-throwing contest, we are well aware of our own building materials. We’ve ghost-written our fair share.

This is all (maybe) interesting martini-talk, but the reality is that no one ever asks “who wrote this?” as a meaningful inquiry into its content or authenticity. Few of us actually care, but we should – and that’s the point. We should no more accept unsigned sustainability reports than we should unsigned checks. Yes, CEOs and CSOs often “sign” the intro, but nine out of ten times I bet that letter was approved by them rather than written by them.

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