Today’s most reputable and responsible companies share sustainability reports with their stakeholders, investors, employees, and consumers. The benefits of sustainability reporting may bolster a brand’s credibility and highlight lucrative economic opportunities through the transparency of its environmental impact.
No matter what reason compels you to create a sustainability report for your organization, odds are you’d like to build something impressive—which might inspire the question, what is the best sustainability report design?
This concise guide shares expert tips for making an impactful, value-driven corporate sustainability report, alongside successful examples to inspire you.
1. Choose between standalone reports or integrated reporting
Your reporting efforts cannot be successful in a vacuum. They need to be tailored to their readership—whether that’s a mixed audience of stakeholders or a dedicated group of investors and capital markets.
Put simply, when it comes to sustainability reporting, context matters.
If you aim to reach a mixed group of stakeholders, you’ll want to choose a standalone sustainability report. Businesses that elect to publish a standalone sustainability report should prioritize ongoing and future initiatives, key metrics that demonstrate progress, and the general impact on stakeholders. This is a business’ opportunity to share its story with customers, employees, consumers, and investors.
Alternatively, the context changes if your audience is investors and capital markets. Here, integrated reporting is preferred, as the business will focus more on financial materiality and financial impact.
To highlight simple differences between the two—integrated reporting will carry a more institutional tone, with an emphasis on facts and figures. On the other hand, standalone sustainability reports will likely be written in the company’s voice or brand identity, and it’s more likely to include photos or images to convey emotion.
2. Tailor each design to the right audience
While integrated reporting provides a clear line of sight for reporting metrics, standalone sustainability reports vary widely in context. Stakeholders from various backgrounds may be inclined to view your report, each with different intentions. To create an effective report, you’ll need to understand which stakeholders you expect to read the report.
For example, audiences who may engage with a sustainability report include:
- Current or potential investors
- Key business partners
- Media relations personnel
- Non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
- Consumers or the general public
- Your executive team or employees
Once you’ve formulated your audience, address the points they’re most interested in. If your audience spans multiple categories, highlight sections that speak directly to each audience segment.
The importance of integrated reporting
It’s important to note that there is increasing pressure to integrate sustainability reporting with financial reporting for investors and capital markets. This allows the audience to understand the material impact of sustainability programs and performance against financials.
Many jurisdictions have proposed and adopted laws requiring integrated reporting, for example:
- The U.S. SEC has proposed a rule requiring public companies to disclose GHG emissions and climate-related risks in public financial filings like annual 10Ks.
- The EU’s newly adopted CSRD requires integrated sustainability reporting alongside financial information in a specific digital format (iXBRL), which entails applying digital tags against individual data points for easier data search and identification. This is critical for businesses covered by the CSRD, which includes U.S. entities with European operations.
The goal of a standalone sustainability report is to provide additional context to your stakeholders on your sustainability efforts. This is the place to include graphs, charts, historical data, goals, and roadmaps—all of the additional context that informs the more literal figures reported in the integrated report.
In this way, these two reporting methods can be blended to create a more effective approach.
3. Use a framework and standard from a credible organization
To produce the most trustworthy sustainability report possible, align with the framework and reporting standards of a credible environmental organization.
A framework guides what topics to showcase and how to showcase them. A standard is a more specific instruction on metrics and data points to include.
There are at least seven recognized organizations that provide frameworks and standards for sustainability reports, including:
- Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB)
- Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP)
- Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB)
- Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)
- International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS)
- Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD)
- World Economic Forum International Business Council (WEF IBC)
4. Include your sustainability rating
A sustainability rating is a metric that shows an organization’s performance in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) sectors. On a sustainability report packed with information, a sustainability rating can inform the audience at a glance.
Sustainability ratings vary depending on two distinct factors: ESG rating providers and ESG indices.
- ESG rating providers – These providers are firms that consist of analysis and investment professionals that assess the ESG performance of publicly traded companies. From there, they assign each organization a score or grade comparable to industry peers. Each provider has different criteria and standards that typically cover environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and governance practices, alongside investment risk and financial stability. Common ESG raters include Sustainalytics (purchased by Morningstar), MSCI, Bloomberg, and Institutional Shareholders Services (ISS).
- ESG indices – These are tradable indices comprised of companies with ESG scores (often given by the ESG rating providers above, or by the index manager themselves). These represent an opportunity for investors (institutional and consumer) to purchase equity in businesses with an ESG focus. Examples of these include Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI), S&P 500 ESG, Nasdaq-100 ESG, and FTSE4Good.
To receive a rating from any of these organizations, you must submit your sustainability report. This means a company’s first report won’t contain an ESG rating, however, subsequent reports can and should.
5. Communicate through visuals
Sustainability reports, no matter how small the company, tend to contain a lot of information, including emissions reporting, corporate social responsibility initiatives, and charitable efforts.
To investors or policymakers, these topics might be abstract and hard to grasp. As such, distill the information in your report into visuals to help communicate your points clearly and effectively. This can include elements like:
- Graphs and charts to showcase growth (or opportunity for improvement)
- Photographs to showcase organizational or charitable initiatives
- Icons or symbols to illustrate scale, like numbers of trees or a carbon footprint
6. Spell out opportunities
Your sustainability report can be designed with all the bells, whistles, and infographics, but if it doesn’t provide valuable insights that stakeholders can make decisions from, the report hasn’t done its job.
Revolve the design of your report around solutions. Where there is a number or a chart, carve space out to disclose the strategy (or proposed strategy) the organization can use to improve that metric. Better yet, if you can prove it with numbers, showcase how much money the company can save by adopting the proposed strategy.
For example, if the report data shows that the company’s recyclable waste has increased by 38% over the last five years, highlight a section alongside it illustrating your proposed waste reduction strategy or recycling initiative.
Sustainability report design examples
The bottom line is the best sustainability report designs are ones that communicate credibly, transparently, and concisely. Design your sustainability report in alignment with your company’s brand guidelines, but for added inspiration, here are a few examples to draw from:
- Autodesk Inc – The 3D design and engineering software platform’s report is easy to navigate and easy to understand. The first page provides a table of contents, allowing the individual to focus on the information most relevant to their involvement.
- Cisco Systems Inc – This report is highly visual and personable to invoke Cisco Systems’ mission. They’ve taken a human-centric approach, starting with their company’s high-level mission, then moving into personal statements made by the CEO and executive vice president.
- Cadence Design Systems Inc – The Cadence Design Systems report opted for a more experiential slideshow. As the slides move like pages in a book, the reader is taken through the high-level information about the company’s initiatives and their previous year’s highlights. From there, they move into specific initiatives to guide their company’s progress.
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1. Harvard Business Review. Designing Your Company’s Sustainability Report. https://hbr.org/2022/01/designing-your-companys-sustainability-report Accessed February 28, 2023
2. SASB. SASB Standards & Other ESG Frameworks. https://www.sasb.org/about/sasb-and-other-esg-frameworks/ Accessed February 28, 2023
3. ESG The Report. What is a Sustainability Rating? https://www.esgthereport.com/what-is-a-sustainability-rating/ Accessed February 28, 2023
4. Autodesk FY22 Impact Report https://damassets.autodesk.net/content/dam/autodesk/www/sustainability/docs/pdf/autodesk-fy2022-impact-report.pdf Accessed February 28, 2023
5. 2021 Cisco Purpose Report https://www.cisco.com/c/dam/m/en_us/about/csr/esg-hub/_pdf/purpose-report-2021.pdf Accessed February 28, 2023
6. Cadence Sustainability Report 2021 https://issuu.com/cdns/docs/cadence_2021_sustainability_report?fr=sZDY3YjMyMzM4MTY Accessed February 28, 2023