Once rather dull, grey documents that companies put out into the public domain – purely as a way of keeping shareholders comfortable in the knowledge that their beneficiaries were being accountable for their actions – corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports are slowly coming of age.

Commonly as widely read as the obligatory hotel-Bible and often issued voluntarily (at least in the UK) alongside financial accounts on an annual basis, CSR reports have either been too data driven and not very inspirational, or merely focused on corporate philanthropy and community engagement. Communicating CSR through big bright, colourful photos can often dangerously mask an absence of meaningful context, baselines, performance goals and substance.

But the way in which CSR reports are used and communicated continues to evolve along with the whole corporate sustainability agenda. Today, more than 700 such reports are produced every year in the UK alone.

What has so far driven annual CSR reporting is an acknowledgement that customers, staff and investors increasingly demand transparency. Presenting non-financial information in a glossy document once a year not only helps companies develop a narrative for their brand, but it also helps to make improvements to performance. If you are actively reporting on something like how much greenhouse gas emissions you are producing as a business every year, there is a much better chance of reducing it. At least that is the theory. After all, as the age-old business axiom goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

But the drivers for sustainability reporting have broadened out in line with increased awareness and interest, particularly from consumers and job-seekers looking to seek out products and services that are best aligned with their own personal values. As a result, companies are changing up how they communicate.

As such, text-heavy reports are giving way to much more dynamic and digital presentations designed to tell stories and engage people in more nuanced and interesting ways – all the while remembering that the content of the report is still king.

gettyimages-707455409.jpg

Here’s a pick of some of the more interesting examples of CSR reporting currently doing the rounds:

Heineken

Experimentation is the name of the game for a number of progressive companies keen to make use of new technologies and media platforms to communicate their approaches to sustainability to ever wider audiences. 

Heineken is one these companies. Not only did the company turn to the rap artist Kevin ‘Blaxtar’ de Randamie to extoll the company’s approach to water conservation of all things as part of its sustainability reporting cycle last year, but it has also tried to ramp up its efforts to engage the ‘man in the pub’ through gamification. Taking key messages and milestones from its US operations, the Dutch brewer has displayed them online in a way that requires interested parties to navigate a variety of levels in order to uncover the company’s progress on key environmental issues.

Virgin Media

The telecoms business recorded its biggest ever annual carbon reduction – with emissions falling by 6.1 per cent between 2014 and 2015 as part of its Digital for Good sustainability programme.

Keen to tell people this story, the company has worked hard to turn traditional reporting on its head. It was one of the first companies to stop publishing a print copy of its reports back in 2010 and has instead turned to videos, social media promos and infographics to get its messages out there.

To accompany its 2015 digital-only group sustainability report, the business created the world’s first 360-degree sustainability video, an immersive, show-not-tell video experience showcasing the company’s sustainability vision. 

gettyimages-580116432.jpg

University of London

The 18 colleges and nine research units that make up University of London has ditched the normal PDF format of sustainability reporting in favour of social media. Last time out it pushed out a series of Tweets via its @LondonEnviro account, each summarising the institute’s key achievements in 2016 (including the fact that 100 per cent of its electricity comes from renewable sources).

Consequently, the main report was made available via a Prezi presentation, allowing users to zoom in and out to find out more (or otherwise) about the various aspects of the story.

Thread

Thread, a certified B Corporation which has a mission to end poverty by creating jobs and responsibly sourced, high-performance fabric, publishes an annual impact report every year. And it wants to engage a broader audience beyond the CSR crowd. As such, the start-up provides enhanced, interactive facets, including videos, animated stats, and an explorable supply chain map to explain its accomplishments.


​– This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

Comment