Visual media can help sustainability reporting

Sustainability is everyone's business.
ShutterstockRomolo Tavani
Sustainability is everyone's business.

The following article is an excerpt from our State of Green Business (SOGB) 2017 report. Published by GreenBiz in partnership with Trucost, it provides a global view of the year's trends in sustainable business. The report is free to download here.

Show, don’t tell. It’s rule No. 1 for writers and presenters. Yet, most sustainability disclosures still take the form of static, text-dense reports, usually delivered on an annual basis, that tell without showing.

The good news is that a large majority of big companies actually compile and release sustainability information compared with just four years ago; about 81 percent of all S&P 500 organizations in 2015, versus just 20 percent in 2011. That’s a pretty impressive improvement, and a positive sign that investors are becoming more interested in declarations about programs for improving energy efficiency, conserving water, reducing waste and so on. It’s a matter of "Trust, but verify."

Last year, some big U.S. companies went a step further, embracing integrated reporting, the idea of discussing how a company’s positions and performance on environmental social and governance issues could shape results and "value creation" over the short, medium and long term.

Among those leading the way are Clorox, Jones Lang LaSalle and General Electric. "Public company reporting has become so complicated that what matters to investors can get lost," said GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt, in the letter framing his company’s latest report (PDF). "Our priority is to provide meaningful information that all investors can readily access. For investors to make investment and voting decisions, we don’t believe that more information is necessarily better. Instead, we’ve challenged ourselves to provide better information."

The dilemma is that while all these reports are impressive exercises in data presentations, charts and flashy infographics full of big numbers — all great for satisfying compliance requirements or reporting frameworks such as those maintained by the Global Reporting Initiative or the CDP guidelines — they’re not as effective for keeping the general public abreast of progress in a way that’s timely or accessible. For most people, seeing is believing.

All of which is inspiring companies to experiment with new, highly visual storytelling methods.

The view from above

Consider the simple yet powerful impact of time-lapse photography taken from the vantage point of outer space.

Late last year, the satellite gurus at Google Earth released several sequences from more than 5 million images collected over the past three decades illustrating (among other things) the effects of climate change on a glacier in Antarctica and the human "footprint" of deforestation surrounding Alberta’s Tar Sands region. The images are simultaneously vivid and gut-wrenching, showing clear degradation over the past 30 years.

It’s easy to see, then, why a growing number of formal environmental monitoring systems are based on powerful data analysis technology along with satellite imagery (such as Google Earth) or interactive mapping software (such at the sort developed by Esri). It’s a far simpler way to express critical data points at a surface level, which enabling those interested in more data to drill down more deeply into the numbers. Companies are beginning to employ these technologies to tell sustainability stories.

One example is the Global Forest Watch, a World Resources Institute project that logs information about deforestation. NASA’s "Images of Change" project is equally spellbinding. Other great examples include Marks & Spencer’s interactive supply chain map and SolarCity’s "contagion" data visualization, basically a GIF showing the rapid adoption of solar panels across America.

If properly edited two-dimensional images can be that effective at helping people "see" what’s changing, imagine the communications potential of far more immersive visualization experiences that depict scenes in three dimensions.

The concept of "virtual reality" (VR) has been a sci-fi staple for years, but new headsets from Google (especially its inexpensive Cardboard viewer) and Microsoft (with its HoloLens "glasses") will make this technology far more cost-effective over the next couple of years. For the "viewer" — the more appropriate word may be "participant" — these gadgets reveal a 360-degree panoramic glimpse at an alternate world, even on a smartphone. Revenue for VR devices and a sister technology called augmented reality (AR) — a means of projecting animations or graphics on top of real-world objects and views — was around $5.2 billion last year but could skyrocket to almost $162 billion by 2020, according to market research firm International Data Corporation.

"We’ve been prisoners to somebody else’s world version," noted Roy Taylor, a corporate vice president for Advanced Micro Devices, during a keynote presentation at the VERGE 16 conference. "Whatever we’ve looked at, whether it’s through a personal computer or a tablet or a smartphone, someone else has created that and we’ve been on the other side looking through. Virtual reality, for the first time, gives us a chance to step through that window and to look around and to see something that is larger and greater than the person who, until now, controlled what we watched, what we saw."

Why should sustainability professionals pay attention to something often considered primarily the domain of gamers or thrill-seekers?

In the future, AR applications promise to be useful for visualizing supply-chain data. By "looking" at a product in a warehouse shelf wearing AR glasses, for example, a distribution center worker might call up more details about its provenance. SAP is working on systems that use smart glasses from a company called Vuzix for just this purpose. Technology of this sort could make it far simpler, over time, for large organizations to collect more data from their suppliers automatically and for verification of their claims to be automated.

In a similar way, VR applications could add more dimensions to energy metrics or power consumption dashboards. Data center operator Aligned Energy, for one, is studying ways that the Microsoft HoloLens AR headset might play a role in helping microgrids tells their story far more visually.

More likely than not, however, we’ll see companies and NGOs use VR applications to help "immerse" individuals in worlds that they might not otherwise encounter, either because the events happened in the past or haven’t yet happened. Google has created dozens of different VR expeditions, many meant for school classrooms, which bring viewers into unknown environments using little more than its cardboard viewer and an Android smartphone. You can even take a deep dive underwater, into coral reefs.

Another company dabbling in high-tech storytelling is Owlized, which created a device resembling a tourist observation viewer that uses data models to display the potential impacts of climate change. "Sea level is a slow-moving crisis that’s hard to see and harder to get people energized around, but this technology will help bring it home in a very tangible way," said Dean Kubani, chief sustainability officer for the city of Santa Monica, California, which is experimenting with the systems to help its citizens visualize the potential danger to its oceanfront.

The Sierra Club is one organization leading the drive toward messages that are far more visceral. One of its first such efforts was an awarding-winning public service announcement produced by media company RYOT (using software from YouTube and Facebook) that brings viewers into the heart of a melting glacier valley. "To us, this is by far the most exciting use case for virtual reality technology," said RYOT COO Molly Swenson. "When you’re standing in the middle of a glacial ice cave, watching and hearing it melt rapidly from the inside out, you not only understand that climate change is real, but you feel compelled to do everything you can to halt and reverse it. VR is the best tool we’ve found for turning passive viewers into active participants."

When it comes to sustainability, as with so many things, seeing really is believing.

Companies to watch

Esri — with almost 75 percent of the Fortune 500 on its customer list, it produces what is considered to be the world’s most powerful interactive mapping engine.

Google — is investing millions to help organizations use its Google Earth satellite images to communicate changing planetary conditions. Meanwhile, its VR Expeditions series is connecting children with places they might never have the chance to see in person.

Magic Leap — the secretive software startup backed with more than $1.4 billion of investment is working on technology that superimposes highly realistic videos or animations onto a real-world view.

Microsoft — its HoloLens headset overlays holograms onto a real-world perspective. It isn’t cheap: a development kit costs about $3,000.

Owlized — is developing viewfinder kiosks — an evolution of the ones you might look through at scenic overlooks — that visualize the likely effect of rising water levels and storms on coastal cities.