Spring has sprung in Toronto, which means that the seeds have been sowed for our autumn harvest: The Works’ Trends Report. I sat down with our Director of Sustainability, Wesley Gee, to get a refresher on the project and to find out what we can expect to see from this year’s research.
Alex Berry: We believe that the Trends is a product, and last year we delivered it in a more accessible package: on a microsite. And, like all products, our Trends Report has a purpose. Can you describe that purpose for us?
Wesley Gee: That’s a tall order because the Trends has a few functions. The most important of which is helping make sure that we in the studio have a strong understanding of what the leading companies are doing and how things are evolving in the reporting space. We spend so much time getting to know our clients and their work that we don’t always get a chance to see what other companies are doing. It’s important that we put our heads up and look above the trees and into the forest to see what everyone else is doing. This blends into the second goal, which is about reinforcing our credibility as a firm. I consider the Trends Research as a kind of annual certification program, validating us as experts in reporting. It gives us confidence to bring the best ideas to the table – and not just be a studio that merely executes. This research breeds innovative thinking and invigorates the team to push clients to elevate their reporting – and sustainability communications – approach. And lastly, it’s important that we contribute to growth in the CSR community. By sharing this research, we hope to act as advocates for best practice in sustainability reporting and communications.
AB: A tall order indeed. If I might paraphrase, it sounds like the Trends teaches the world, and us, what it takes to deliver clear, comprehensive, constructive and engaging corporate reporting. Would you agree with that purpose statement?
WG: Yes, I think that’s a fair assessment.
AB: Great. My job here is done. JK! There is still so much to learn about the Trends process. Can you share some details about the criteria that you’re using to evaluate reports this year? Has it changed much from last year?
WG: The criteria we used in recent years will not change too much for our 2018 research. We continue to take a combined approach when it comes to evaluating a report for its design, content and interactivity. Obviously from my perspective, our analysis of things like materiality, stakeholder engagement, and alignment with guidelines and frameworks is extremely important and will always be part and parcel with our research. Where we do see a need to expand our survey is around the topic of brand and the role it plays in the overall efficacy of corporate reporting. Increasingly, corporate CSR communications are not confined to the pages of a report – rather, we see smart reporting taking on a whole new model supported by social media and diversified digital content. With this expansion, it’s more important than ever that companies employ brand to tie the entire suite of communications together. We’re also making a point to assess the tactics that we ourselves have seen drive results for our own clients (e.g., video content). Right now, we’re working with our developers, social media experts and animators to determine what qualifies as metrics of success for this kind of content.
AB: Well, I’m certainly interested to explore how top companies are using social media to share their CSR impacts. While I’m in awe of companies like Patagonia and Warby Parker, who have sustainability built into their business model, I feel I learn much more from those that are honing their sustainability strategy through reporting and I gain value from seeing how they position that process – both the positives and the negatives – online. Are there tactics you’ve noticed more and more companies using to make their sustainability strategy digestible to online audiences?
WG: I’ve noticed a growing momentum behind the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the last year. While it’s interesting to note how many companies support them publicly and the SDGs they align themselves with, I want to see specifics. We’re seeking to understand the extent to which companies actually report according to the targets within each of the SDGs. It’s at that deeper level that we’ll start to see who is using the SDGs as a superficial marketing tool, and who has put thought into what they’re doing and how they can genuinely have a broader impact. Because reporting to the SDGs is still a bit of a wild west, I expect to see mostly Goal-level alignment from companies, though I anticipate that within the next 12 to 15 months there will be formal guidelines or a framework for reporting to the Goals – especially for those companies that are signatories to the United Nations Global Compact.
AB: On the topic of frameworks, can you share a bit more insight on how we’re selecting reports to be surveyed?
WG: In terms of managing the framework for our research, we always assess between eight and 12 companies from every sector and we cover a dozen different sectors – from resources to retail. We strive to have a good balance and, increasingly, we’re doing a better job of including companies from around the world. This year is particularly exciting for us because it’s the first time that we’re opening up the selection process to public submissions. The more diversity we can have in the selection process, the better. While we make no guarantees that reports submitted will make it into the Trends sample, it’s a great way for us to reach out to new sustainability managers and communications directors in charge of building these reports and perhaps have a conversation about ways they might improve next year. I hope to see some completely new companies in the finished product because of this added ingredient. And we make no bones about it – this is a great business development opportunity. We want to expand our circle of influence and make it known that we’re not only a firm that can execute reports flawlessly, but we’re also a firm that has an intimate understanding of the strategy needed to create really worthwhile sustainability communications.
AB: Well, I think there’s no better way to end this conversation than on that note. #Humblebrag. Thanks for the chat, Wes.
WG: Thank you. It was a pleasure. I’m sure we will have much more information to share about our research over the coming months.
AB: Indeed. Stay tuned, readers!
Looking to stay in the loop about our Trends Research? Sign up for the In Scope digest. If you’d like to apply to be part of our 2018 Sustainability Trends Research program, click here to learn more.