When it comes to sustainability, the medium is as important as the message

When we talk about sustainability or ESG reports, what’s important? We usually talk content. It’s already an arduous task to gather data, track progress, get good photos, frame a compelling narrative. Not to mention thinking about which acronym salad to work with – GRI, SASB, TCFD, SDG, FBI? Maybe not that last one.

With all that work on content, it’s easy to forget a fundamental question. What medium do we want to use?

The word, report. It suggests a thick, bound document, with a lot of words. The perfect decoration for your coffee table. Yet in today’s digital age, that’s no longer the only option. There are now many more ways to communicate your sustainability credentials that are more appealing to your average reader.

What options exist? And what are the pros and cons?

Posted by
Ryan Ong

The tried-and-true traditional report

The classic 80-page A4 sustainability report, printed or PDF, is still a solid medium. We haven’t shied away from using it for our own reporting.

This traditional approach remains the dominant one for most companies. Over three-quarters (77%) of the world’s companies continue to report sustainability using a downloadable PDF. This is hardly surprising, as sustainability reporting has historically been guided by financial reporting where a PDF A4 annual report remains king.

Pros and cons of the traditional report


  • It’s a familiar format for readers, so it’ll be easier to digest and navigate for a seasoned audience.
  • It is much easier to audit and assure an A4 report, and it’s easier to keep records.
  • It’s a familiar format for readers, so it’ll be easier to digest and navigate for a seasoned audience.
  • It is much easier to audit and assure an A4 report, and it’s easier to keep records.
  • As the A4 report is fairly standard, it’s easier for readers to make assessments and comparisons with other companies.
  • An A4 PDF can be more budget-friendly than digital reporting which involves web developers and programmers, on top of copywriters and designers.
  • Having a tangible printed report is very portable and is great for sharing in person, at events or meetings.


  • It’s long and very unengaging for an unseasoned audience and the important messages can be lost in the many pages.
  • The PDF format is restrictive, so you’re limited to words and static images, and of course you can’t have anything interactive.
  • For those seeking very specific information, it can be time-consuming to scroll through the document.
  • It is a lot less accessible to an international audience who may not be fluent in English.
  • If you have printed reports, the paper wastage can make your company look hypocritical.

There are many ways you can try to mitigate some of the format’s weaknesses. One thing many companies do is provide a shorter executive summary report, like this Western Digital two-pager.

Australian mining company BHP Billiton also provides some separate subject-specific reports to make it easier for people to dive into their topic of interest, like their 2020 Climate Change report.

Digital reporting – a new age

The digital age presents a huge opportunity to reach more people more effectively. And thanks to a looser regulatory framework than financial reporting, sustainability reports can take advantage of fresher digital formats.

However, very few companies are taking advantage of the opportunity. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, only 23% of companies around the world have adopted a ‘digital-first’ approach. Only 43% publish relevant sustainability web content to accompany their PDF report.

One of the issues is that there’s almost too many digital options available. It can be difficult to determine what’s best.

Some companies, like Unilever, have an extensive microsite dedicated to sustainability that provides a clear picture of their goals and their progress.

More and more companies are also using a ‘build-your-own-report’ function, that allows readers to autogenerate a PDF report based on the content they want to see, like this Intel report builder tool.

To more effectively communicate with investors, companies are also making ESG data books – a spreadsheet with performance data and data disclosures. It allows investment analysts easier access to key sustainability data to support assessments and decisions. BHP Billiton has opted for this approach in their ESG Navigators and Databook.

One of the major benefits of the digital format is the ability for greater interactivity than a traditional PDF. You can create an interactive materiality matrix, like Geberit, to allow users to more easily filter and click through to different material issues. Interactive maps can also help multinationals communicate complex information about their operations and supply chains. This BP energy charting tool helps contextualise BP’s role in global energy production, while giving users a chance to learn more about the shifting state of the world’s use of energy.

And yes, there’s an app for that. More innovative companies are taking sustainability reporting to your pocket with apps. The Shell Sustainability Report app allows users to interactively browse through key information, as well as receive push notifications when new information becomes available.

There’s clearly a wealth of digital options, but how do they all stand up to the traditional report?

Pros and cons of digital reporting


  • You will never be starved for choice; you have almost unlimited options to communicate information how you’d like. This is particularly useful if you have very complex information that can be difficult to communicate through words or a static image.
  • It’s much more engaging to your average reader, especially if interactivity is involved, so you’ll probably widen your reach. And thanks to the power of Google Translate, you’ll be able to access an international audience.
  • It’s easier to tailor information for your different audiences. Investors can get clear cut ESG data while curious consumers can easily access your top-line goals and progress.
  • Information can be updated in real-time, while PDFs are usually out of date before they’re even published.
  • You can collect a lot more data. Unlike with PDFs, you’ll be able to see which webpages are being visited most, and what topics are striking the most interest.


  • Digital reporting can be more expensive than the traditional approach. Depending on what you do you’ll need to add web developers, designers and programmers into the mix.
  • It can be much more difficult to assure, and because information can be changed on a dime, the information might not be robust enough for more critical audiences.
  • Some of the more modern platforms, such as apps or very interactive tools, pose accessibility challenges for less technology-minded audiences.
  • Because there are so many different digital reporting options, companies will take different approaches. It makes comparing information between companies very difficult for your average user.
  • Accessing information usually requires more action by readers. A PDF report requires just one click – download – and you have all the information at your fingertips. However, for a reader to get to their desired webpage they may need to make many clicks. And the information they’re after may be hidden under many layers of navigation. The more clicks, the more likely a reader will drop off.

The verdict

Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with the traditional A4 PDF. It’s been around for a while for good reasons. Yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to build upon it. The PDF report is a perfect medium for your veteran audiences. The ones looking for assurance, for comparability, for something to put in their records.

However, digital reporting opens up a whole new avenue to reach investors, curious customers, suppliers and the general public. It’s the perfect complement to the traditional PDF. By using both mediums, you’ll be sending the message that your company really cares about being transparent on sustainability. And that’s what’s important.

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