Why most CSR reports fail, Part 4: Accessibility
Having a great strategy, clear accomplishments, great data and good dialogue are important. But in these multi-media, multi-platform days, that alone is not enough. As sustainability migrates from being a specialized issue to one of concern to mainstream audiences, all this information must be accessible to people without specialized training and inside knowledge. If a CSR report is cloaked in jargon or shackled with technical limitations, it will fail to achieve its communications goals.
This “Accessibility” category incorporates three criteria: language, design, and interactivity.
Language is pretty straightforward: are the words and concepts presented in a way that a typical employee, customer, etc. would find comprehensible? Unfortunately, the GRI, as any technical standard does, tends to encourage specialized jargon and concepts that only highly-trained experts truly understand. While those concepts should underlie the report, they don’t have to obscure the meaning and hamper readers’ ability to understand. In addition, sometimes these concepts need to be translated into the specialized language of the intended audience, especially when explaining the business impact of sustainability to the financial community.
While Ford scores well overall, they fall down on this criterion. While the automaker gets top marks for explaining the rationale behind their sustainability strategies, they present their “materiality matrix” with little explanation. Materiality is one of the core concepts of sustainability that is essential, but the average consumer will likely find it mysterious.
On the other hand, Wal-Mart explains the importance of energy, waste, and the products it sells in a way covers the “material” impacts it has, but in language that is clear and comprehensible.
Design should serve two purposes. The first is to make the information attractive and inviting to read. But there is a fine line between attractive graphic design and a glitzy look that is meant to dazzle the reader rather than enlighten.
Closely related to design — especially online — is Interactivity. should also facilitate the understanding and exploration of the information. With online reports, that means an intelligent but restrained use of technology that uses features that displays data informatively and aides the reader in accessing it.
Starbucks Goals & Progress Report continues to be one of the best reports I’ve seen on these factors. They hit on a very attractive functional design a couple of years ago, and have continued to update it annually.
Attractive navigation visually represents each major area, such as Coffee Purchasing & Farmers Support of Energy & Water Conservation and individual icons represent a specific set of actions within each of these areas. The reader can click to read about the overall issue or drill down to the specifics easily.
Another nice feature Startbucks uses is an expanding text box — when you click through on one of the areas such as Energy & Water Conservation, you are greeted with a short summary of their activities. Click the “Read more” link, and without leaving the page, the text area expands to give you significant detail.
Ford uses web interactivity intelligently in its presentation of CO2 emissions: the chart presented allows the reader to toggle between a bar chart representation and a table of the actual emissions data.
As one might expect from a master of branding, Coca-Cola has an attractive design that reflects the brand image well. But this doesn’t detract from the breadth or depth of information available. Each major initiative such as Water Stewardship has a page which overviews their key goals and activities, has a video of the senior executive responsible for the area and links to data and downloads.
Contrast these examples with McDonald’s, a company who was a pioneer in addressing the environmental impacts of their restaurants by teaming with the Environmental Defense Fund in 1990 to examine ways to reduce solid waste. Their reporting is anything but pioneering. It is mostly a Web 1.0 straight html design with little additional functionality. While they have incorporated video, pieces like ‘The Road to Sustainability’ is a typical PR image polishing exercise with little substance. The language is often self-congratulatory, such as the opening sentence of the Environmental Responsibility page, “We’ve long recognized the value of minimizing our environmental footprint” then goes on to talk about what they did 30 years ago. The Progress Snapshot is a summary of recent accomplishments, with no apparent way to drill down to greater detail.
Companies like Starbucks and Coca Cola are thinking clearly about how their customers, employees and other mainstream audiences want to interact with their CSR data. Other companies can learn a great deal from their example about how to translate CSR and sustainability reporting data into a credible, effective piece of communication.
Other posts in the “Why Most CSR Reports Fail” series:
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