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Digital Sustainability Reporting Has Benefits, Pitfalls

griformatsDigital technology is changing the way companies report on sustainability, reducing the use of paper studies, for instance. However, the increased use of digital reporting has made some information more difficult to access, according to a new study from The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a provider of the sustainability reporting framework, and Radley Yeldar, a UK-based communications consultancy. GRI is one of three major third-party CSR assurance providers.

When the first GRI Guidelines were released in 2000, most sustainability reports were published in a single, printed document, according to GRI. Based on this latest study, sustainability reporting is increasingly published online in PDF formats.

The research evaluates 40 global organizations that report using the GRI G3 Guidelines. The findings identify a number of factors that can determine the effectiveness of online reporting, including the format and how new digital technologies are used to enhance the user experience.

A key finding reveals that sustainability performance data is typically found within two clicks from companies’ home pages, which highlights the importance that is now placed on sharing this information with external stakeholders, according to the researchers.

Researchers say that while sustainability reporting is on the rise, there are some pitfalls of using digital technology including making the information more difficult to find. According to the study, more than 20 percent of the companies evaluated require stakeholders to look at three or more locations to get the complete GRI data.

GRI says one solution is to use a fully hyperlinked GRI Content Index to help users find and access the information they require. The report indicates that only 40 percent of surveyed companies had any degree of interactivity in their GRI Content Index.

The study also finds that all companies use PDFs to support the online communication of GRI data, and there is trend towards more creative use of online channels when publishing information on corporate sustainability performance.

Yet, few companies are taking advantage of the more innovative uses of technology, according to the researchers. The study reveals that no companies are using XBRL to tag data or Web 2.0 technologies. Even when other online functionalities are used, there is a focus on design rather than functionality.

Here’s a snapshot of key findings:

  • 60 percent of companies distribute their GRI information across two or more sources
  • 40 percent of organizations put all their GRI information in one report; 22.5 percent put the information in 3 or more locations
  • 30 percent of organizations have a direct link to their sustainability report on their homepage
  • 32.5 percent of organizations provide a full online report with PDF as the format of choice
  • 82.5 percent of organizations produce more than one report on sustainability
  • 10 percent of companies use new technologies to enable users to produce a customized version of their report
  • 27.5 percent of organizations use flash functionality for web reporting
  • 7.5 percent of organizations use a RSS feed or email service to keep stakeholders up to date on sustainability issues
  • 10 percent of the companies provide an online feedback form
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