I’ve been a proponent of increased sustainability reporting and transparency since the late 1990s. I produced one of the world’s first “written-for-the-web” sustainability reports while at BT in 2001. I’ve also been heavily involved in the recent internet and human rights agenda, advising Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft on freedom of expression and privacy issues.

With a background like that, I should be enthusiastic about the prospects of “new media” and “web 2.0” for sustainability reporting, but I’m not. Let me describe why.

My main concern with the current enthusiasm for “web 2.0” approaches to sustainability reporting is that it risks confusing two related but distinct concepts: reporting and communications.

To understand this risk, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of the “why” and the “what” of sustainability reporting. Sustainability reporting exists to help stakeholders make informed decisions (the “why”) based on comparable sustainability performance information that is accurate, compiled through a robust process, and signed off by the company board (the “what”).

I’m seeing enthusiasm for “web 2.0”-style reporting move attention and effort away from these critical fundamentals. As I have written elsewhere, we’re still in the early phases of sustainability reporting and have a long way to go before the necessary levels of reliable comparability exist. Yet I’ve seen many companies invest way more time (and money) into figuring out what type of video content to embed in their report than making sure, for example, that their basic narrative describing climate change risks, opportunities, and performance is up to scratch. This confuses communications with reporting, and it’s becoming a big problem.  

Sustainability reporting is about presenting the analysis and performance information required to enable decision making with long-term horizons on some of the world’s most important shared challenges. And yet, many in the sustainability reporting profession seem increasingly sucked into the more short-term game of communications. It is more than slightly ironic to observe quarterly financial reporting being lambasted for encouraging short-term thinking while sustainability reporting is getting pushed in exactly that direction.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an optimist when it comes to the impact of the internet and “web 2.0” forms of communications on society. I’m in awe at how the internet has transformed so many aspects of our lives for the better over the past decade. And I believe there are many opportunities for companies to use the internet to engage more effectively with stakeholders.

However, a much clearer distinction between reporting and communications is needed if both are to reach their full potential. By renewing our focus on the “why” and the “what” of reporting, we can free up the “web 2.0” wizards to do what they do best.