What 'Where the Wild Things Are' Can Teach Us About CSR Reports

What 'Where the Wild Things Are' Can Teach Us About CSR Reports

One thing I love about my job is helping explain the business value of being a more sustainable company. We just published our 2010 sustainability report showing how our investments in things like deploying more fuel efficient fleets and working towards stemming the high school dropout crisis are paying off.

But after three years of doing this, I know that reading a sustainability report isn't high on most people's list of fun things to do. Although some reports -- like those published by Starbucks and Timberland -- are trending slimmer and more easily navigable, most tend to be dense with facts and figures that appeal to a relatively small group of folks.

However, there's a broad and growing mix of audiences concerned about sustainability -- from investors who rank companies' performance, to consumers who make purchasing decisions based on what they know about a brand. Even Prince William and the former Kate Middleton got into the act this year, using a sustainable florist for their royal wedding.

So what's keeping companies from crafting a sustainable report that interests more people? If there's one thing most of us have in common it's that we like a good story. For example, my kids can't get enough of Where the Wild Things Are.

Inspired by that idea, we decided to bring sustainability to life through stories in this year's report. It's not quite Where the Wild Things Are. But for sustainability managers, it can be just as compelling to talk about the business value of sustainability through the words of real people in the places in which they live and work.

One of our most surprising discussions was with our energy director, who talked about how his team helped lead the company to $44 million in energy savings in 2010 by implementing 4,200 energy efficiency projects. One initiative, the Energy Scorecard, grades energy performance at 500 of our top energy-consuming facilities and sets efficiency goals for real estate managers to cut energy use.

But as you may have noticed, we think sustainability is about more than being energy efficient and preserving resources -- it's also about sustaining our communities. Companies' success -- and America's global competitiveness -- is linked to the long-term health of our communities.

Take education as an example. When nearly one-fourth of all students -- and nearly 40 percent of African-American, Hispanic and Native American students -- fail to graduate with their class, we not only have an education crisis, but the nation has a workforce crisis as well.

We introduced AT&T Aspire to help stem the crisis and prepare the future workforce. Since 2008, the related Job Shadow initiative we launched with Junior Achievement has provided more than 65,000 students with the opportunity to learn more about career options and what it takes to be successful in the workforce of today and tomorrow. Along this journey, we met Ivonne, a 14-year-old in Texas who struggled with poor grades and was at risk for not graduating from high school. Aspire paired the girl with a counselor, empowered her to improve her grades and got her more involved in volunteer service. Now, she not only earned her way on to the honor roll, but she's planning to attend college and become a counselor herself.

Companies also look to sustain communities (and themselves) through innovation. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake [PDF], we tell the story of teaming with the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians and Water Transit Solutions (WTS) to bring the power of technology to the recovery effort. To address critical water needs, we're working with WTS to roll out a tracking system in Haiti that would allow recovery workers to see the locations of water tanks and delivery trucks. Those trucks could provide 2,500 people with clean water each day.

This all goes to say that there's an opportunity to rethink our sustainability reports. Stories capture the imagination, inspire people to imagine what's possible in their own lives and engage audiences that otherwise would know very little about the topic. Sustainability managers are taking a more thoughtful approach that, in the end, can help advance sustainability with more mainstream audiences while still addressing very technical reporting requirements.

So let the wild rumpus start!

We're eager to read what you think.

Photo CC-licensed by Bruce Turner.