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December 31, 2001
Consulting Firm Promotes Online Reporting of Triple Bottom Line
    by William Baue

SustainAbility, a British research and consultancy firm, recently released a report on how companies, their stakeholders and customers use the Internet to communicate about sustainable development.

While most people now accept the premise that the Internet is changing the world, fewer people understand the dynamics of how this transformation is taking place. SustainAbility, a London- and New York-based consulting firm, recently released a report on the mechanics of how companies use, and do not use, the World Wide Web to advance sustainable development initiatives.

The report, entitled "Virtual Sustainability: Using the Internet to Implement the Triple Bottom Line," documents examples of how companies communicate their social and environmental performance online. The triple bottom line refers to the economic, environmental and social value companies add to, and detract from, society.

While some companies have incorporated online sustainability reporting strategies successfully, many companies have yet to exploit the Web's potential for this purpose. The report offers numerous suggestions on how companies can improve their online efforts.

The report is part of the "Engaging Stakeholders" series, a collaborative project launched in 1994 by SustainAbility and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). "Virtual Sustainability" picks up where "The Internet Reporting Report," the previous study in the series, left off in 1999. The earlier report focused on web-based corporate reporting on sustainability, while the new study broadens its scope to include stakeholder and consumer engagement in the sustainability dialogue. Online orders for the new report testify to its popularity.

"The sales so far have been higher than in the first weeks of our other reports, which shows that there is a need out there [for this type of study]," said SustainAbility Senior Adviser Oliver Dudok van Heel. "And of course more and more companies today are really moving toward Web-based corporate reporting, so it's a very timely report in that sense," he continued.

Remaining true to the subject of the report, SustainAbilty published the entire document exclusively online. A triangle of icons allows for navigation to the report's three main sections. "The Reporting Web" presents issues and best practice examples of corporate sustainability reporting. "The Stakeholder Web" discusses how the web has transformed relationships between businesses and their stakeholders. And "The Wider Web" addresses the larger implications of web-based reporting, such as online activism.

"A variety of stakeholders, whether they're activist organizations or whether they're investors, use the Web in a very intelligent way . . . to gather a lot of their information and to organize themselves," Mr. van Heel stated. "Business has been very slow responding to that . . . placing them in a situation of disadvantage, which they need to rectify--not only to improve the quality of the information that they put out there, but also to improve the level of engagement they do with other stakeholders."

In order to identify the availability of information on sustainable development, SustainAbility researchers conducted a "navigation survey" of corporate web-sites. Most of the companies examined, all of which use Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards, mentioned sustainability reporting on their homepage. However, most of these companies buried their sustainability reporting beneath several levels of navigation from the homepage, obscuring the transparency of this information.

For example, visitors to the Intel (ticker: INTC) website must navigate through three levels, first clicking on "Investor Relations," and then on "Social Responsibility," before accessing information on the company's sustainability reporting. SustainAbility cites BASF, BC Hydro, and Novartis (NVS) as best practice examples. Their information on sustainability is accessible via menu options visible throughout their sites.

"As a body of research, and as a learning tool, we believe that this report is unique. We also hope--and believe--that the web-site will continue to evolve as expectations and state-of-the-art reporting evolve," wrote Jacqueline Aloisi de Larderel, Director of UNEP's Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, in the report's Foreword. "Virtual Sustainability shows us that there is real (and growing) potential for increased dialogue and understanding through Internet connectivity."


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