Increasing social and ecological awareness has, in recent years, changed the way the average person perceives corporations. When a hip brand such as Nike is accused of exploitation of child labour in Taiwan, it shows that even the coolest company can fall from grace.
Globalisation and the Internet have helped to create a global community constantly informed and increasingly concerned about what happens on the planet. Media scrutiny and instant access to data means that we all know when an oil company is choking a local community to create some extra oil plants. As a response to this consumer stranglehold, big organisations are becoming concerned about their image and investing in new ways to promote their politically correct company ethos and sound ecological principles. They know that they may have to change their ways to continue prospering in the global capitalist market.
Environmental reporting is a way of assessing the effects of corporates’ activities upon the environment. Born as an offshoot of annual reports, it is, for many companies, an invaluable piece of corporate communication. For the design consultancies involved in creating these reports, they represent an exciting opportunity to combine design with social responsibility. “The sharp focus [on environmental reporting] came with the Kyoto conference in 1997, the first international attempt to address climate change,” explains Cindy Forde, head of corporate social responsibility communications at design consultancy Flag. “All the major companies were there and signed an agreement to reduce emissions.”
When Government leaders returned from the conference they realised that these targets could only be achieved through the commitment of businesses. It was then that environmental reporting was endorsed as a medium to measure eco-sound action. Although the reports are not statutory, there is strong Government pressure for companies to produce them.
Environmental reports can also be internally-focused. “It’s a great mechanism for making sure things happen inside a company,” says Dorothy Mackenzie, director of Dragon, which works for clients such as Sainsbury, Barclays and BT. “The pressure of producing an external report means that you have a strong motivation to make sure the company is actually doing something… it’s quite a high profile document that goes out in the public domain and it tends to come to the attention of senior management. If you push environmental issues up the agenda it helps the people responsible for it to keep things going.” And, of course, it helps in terms of reputation. “Some companies will choose them to communicate their environmental credentials with new groups they want to do business with, or to find new locations for factories or even potential recruits,” adds Mackenzie.
But why do design consultancies choose to produce environmental reports? Cambridge-based Flag started gearing towards corporate social responsibility a couple of years ago. “Flag is a company that does not just exist to make profit, but to protect our environmental and social capital,” explains Forde. “When the issue of environmental reporting started to gain importance on the corporate agenda we thought it would be great to marry our internal values with the external way we generate financial capital.” The consultancy is located in a converted barn and prides itself on its environmental policy. “We have always aimed to sell knowledge as well as design,” explains Rob Cameron, chairman of Flag. The consultancy’s current clients in environmental reporting include London Transport (print) and Carillion (print and on-line); the group’s areas of specialism range from corporate and marketing, graduate recruitment, internal communications and now corporate social responsibility.
The reports are created for both print and on-line. But what design issues do the two media raise? Nigel Baxter, director at Salter Baxter, has among his clients EMI, Unilever, London Electricity and Cable & Wireless. “Overall, the design has become much more important today, since companies do regard environmental reports as relevant as all the other corporate documents,” says Baxter. “However, the transition to the Web has freed it up,” he adds. The novelty of on-line environmental reports is such that every company has its own strategy. “I think people are now looking at websites as the main focus for reporting,” says Mackenzie at Dragon. “The trend is for people to put less emphasis on the printed report and more on communicating their performance at the heart of their website. Some companies, like Shell, use the Internet to have a dynamic dialogue with shareholders, while other companies will use it as a way of offering information in different depths and layers.
“One of the challenges for environmental reporting is the amount of information that should be given, since the potential audience is so diverse. It’s a challenge to design because you don’t want to be boring or obscure. If anything, it’s important to use a simple style, as the main issue is how quickly the user can access the information,” says Mackenzie.
Concern for the user is also an issue for Flag. “Our approach to the design [of environmental reporting] is to make it look as exciting as we can,” says Flag chairman Rob Cameron. “At the end of the day it’s about the user’s experience rather than just the client’s brief. It’s not so much what you want to say but what people need to know.”
Many environmental reports carry a lot of dry, technical data that needs to be brought alive visually. With print reports it can be an arduous task, but with the Web that information is usually accessed from a database and read only by those seriously interested in it. “For EMI and Cable & Wireless we placed the data on the Web – and you don’t have to look at it if you don’t want to, while the print summary is more light-hearted, like a piece of marketing,” says Baxter. In the Bahamas, where C&W is one of the largest employers, its environmental reports are aimed at the local community, ranging from top level government bodies right down to school children. This year, C&W will be launching an educational programme with interactive environmental games on the Web.
“It’s a big development,” says Baxter. “The Web enables you to create a lively approach.” He sees environmental reports as becoming more and more a corporate communication programme with many angles: from straightforward reports to educational programmes, community focus and marketing.
Indeed, the focus of environmental reports is now changing. “A lot of environmental reports focus traditionally on production processes like manufacturing, waste emissions and so on, and that can seem very remote to the public, so you need to relate some of the issues to the products people are familiar with,” confirms Mackenzie. As such, many environmental reports are now tackling broader social issues, such as what goes on in the supply chain. These changes affect the design values. “Before environmental reports had their own style, which was quite technical and scientific,” says Mackenzie. “If you combine them with community relations and employment issues, what is the right design feel for them? Should they be technical or should they be more about human aspects? Our overall view is that they need to look like a normal bit of corporate design.”
Mackenzie thinks things have changed. “Environmental reports used to look completely at odds with other pieces of corporate communication, sending the message that environment wasn’t central to the company. Now that they are mainstream and corporate, how do you make them interesting and dynamic?”
For consultancies which produce environmental reports, content can be as important as design. To create a perfect balance, Salter Baxter has formed Envoy, a joint venture with environmental group Environmental Context. Working together, they create design and content, offering a seamless service to the client.
Flag also uses a team of specialist writers and seem very concerned about conveying environmental issues in an appropriate and comprehensive language. Over the next few months, Flag plans to build an environmental Internet portal, a democratic forum for discussion which will probably revolutionise the way most companies present their reports. The list of the participants is yet to be finalised, but Forde is enthusiastic about the novelty. “We are working on a project in conjunction with leaders in this field, from the academic and business communities,” she says. “We will offer corporate performance data on-line in a way that is accessible and comparable, written in stakeholder’s dialogue. It will involve the leading corporates and the broad civil society, from non-governmental organisations and human rights associations right down to the average audience. This is bound to harvest the power of the Internet and reach the whole community.”