On Tuesday I attended Corporate Register’s annual reporting conference and award ceremony. The day was all about the wonderful world of sustainability reporting. Sustainability reporting is a where companies communicate what they are doing in sustainability to a broader audience, and usually takes the form of a long, brochure like report with lots of pictures, facts and figures and text.

During the afternoon we had discussions in small groups covering different elements of reporting and how to make reports better. Many ideas were thrown around like limiting the page limit on reports, ensuring they are written in plain english, targeting them to different audiences, limiting the amount of indicators that need to be reported on, and so on and so on.

There was, however, no discussion about reinventing or rethinking the sustainability report itself.

I am generally a fan of working with what we have to make it stronger and better rather than continually starting from scratch. I don’t always feel this way about sustainability reports. I am not questioning the data presented necessarily. I very much support the efforts of the Global Reporting Initiative and other organizations that are working to ensure that companies disclose increasing amounts of relevant information. What I question are the reports themselves, how companies choose to communicate their sustainability information to interested partities, such as me, in a 90 page glossy brochure with a lot more words than points.

Perhaps it is time to rethink how companies communicate this information. Should it be communicated in different ways to different audiences? Who are those audiences? What do you want those audiences to do with that information?. Should companies have to write them themselves rather than outsourcing them to communication companies to write all the stories for them? What about having simple one page reports with the main messages, like cheat sheets in a way, for employees so that they can spread the stories of what they and their company are doing in this area. What about turning reports into iphone aps, games, interactive forums or other perhaps more useful or user friendly mediums. We should create a movement to “eliminate the long sustainability reports that are turned into pdfs and only made available as big downloads or that you have to read online”.

I really want to know what companies are doing in this area, and find sustainability reports to be a good way of getting a feel for what the companies are doing. But I must admit, some of them can be difficult, almost painful to read! Here are a group of reports that should promise for some interesting reading (although I haven’t had the chance to read them yet). The winners of the different awards given were :

– Best report: Vodafone Group
– Best first time report: The Walt Disney Company
– Best SME report: RecycleBank
– Best integrated report: Novo Nordisk
– Best carbon disclosure: Hewlett-Packard Company
– Creativity in communication: Coca-Cola Enterprises
– Relevance and materiality: Vodafone Group
– Openness & Honesty: Virgin Media
– Credibility through Assurance: Banco Bradesco

Looking forward to seeing who is the first to rethink they way the communicate their sustainability information.