Over the past decade, corporate social responsibility reports—also called CSR reports, impact reports, or sustainability reports—have become more common, a trend that’s predicted to continue. In fact, 90 percent of companies on the S&P 500 index published CSR reports in 2019—up from 86 percent in 2018, 75 percent in 2014, and only 20 percent in 2011.

So, what is a CSR report? What do quality CSR reports look like, and why do they matter for businesses and society? Here are the answers to these questions and ways you can help craft a CSR report for your organization.

What Is a CSR Report?

According to the online course Sustainable Business Strategy, corporate social responsibility is the idea that a business has a responsibility to the society and environment in which it operates. Many businesses striving to be socially responsible use the triple bottom line—an organization’s impact on people and the planet, in addition to its profits—to determine strategic priorities.

A corporate social responsibility (CSR) report is an internal- and external-facing document companies use to communicate CSR efforts and their impact on the environment and community. An organization’s CRS efforts can fall into four categories: environmental, ethical, philanthropic, and economic.

In some countries, it’s mandatory for corporations to publish CSR reports annually. Although not yet required of companies based in the United States, some predict it will be in the not-so-distant future.

Currently, there isn’t a common set of CSR reporting standards in the US. This provides organizations the freedom to report on CSR efforts in whatever format they choose and highlight whatever information they wish. The lack of standards can, however, make it difficult to compare reports across companies. It also enables firms to leave out areas where their efforts failed or harmed people or the environment.

CSR reports are typically presented in a digital format for easy distribution, but they can also be printed and presented to stakeholders in person. A CSR report’s layout can range from a straightforward text document to a designed, visually stimulating packet.

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Examples of CSR Reports

To help you envision what your organization’s CSR report could look like, here are several examples of recent CSR reports from well-known companies:

Each example begins with a letter from a corporate executive, such as the president, chief executive officer, or chief sustainability officer, has a table of contents, and is visually appealing. These examples range from 42 pages to nearly 180 pages long—a testament to the flexibility of CSR reporting standards.

You may notice that the examples have different wording in the titles. Once again, because there’s no set structure for CSR reports, the framing is up to the individual company and what it would like to highlight.

Many companies create specific branding strategies for CSR efforts and reports. For instance, note Warby Parker’s clean, personal aesthetic throughout, or General Motors’ clever slogan on its report’s front page: “driving sustainable value.” As seen in Cisco’s report, using infographics is an effective way to visualize company data to highlight trends and changes made over time.

Each CSR report is different and highlights the company’s strong suits, goals, and plans. Dig into each example to see what aspects you may incorporate in your company’s report.

Related: 5 Examples of Corporate Social Responsibility That Were Successful

Why Are CSR Reports Important?

CSR reports are a way for an organization to communicate its mission, efforts, and outcomes to external and internal stakeholders. In addition to employees, decision-makers, and shareholders, these include customers, the local community, and society at large.

If a company has been bold and successful in its CSR efforts, the release of its CSR report is as much a communication tool as it is a marketing and public relations event. Especially because of the lack of mandatory guidelines, you can use these reports to highlight your organization’s achievements and build social responsibility into your brand’s identity.

Releasing a CSR report on an annual basis can also create accountability. For example, if your organization publishes its goal to be carbon neutral by 2025 in its 2021 CSR report, chances are employees will feel driven to accomplish that goal so its completion can be noted in the 2025 report. If a goal isn’t reached in its intended time frame, the CSR reporting process can prompt an examination of how the project went off track and what can be done to realign and accomplish the goal in a realistic timeframe.

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Improving Your Company’s CSR Efforts

CSR reports are an effective way to communicate your business’s efforts, goals, and plans to help the environment and community, along with the impact it’s had so far. If, however, your business hasn’t started its social responsibility efforts yet, it’s never too late.

In the online course Sustainable Business Strategy, Harvard Business School Professor Rebecca Henderson implores professionals to start with purpose and build the business case from there. What’s an issue that impacts your business, customers, or community? Start by identifying a cause that’s important to members of your organization, and then brainstorm a quantifiable goal you can set that would help that cause.

To make the business case to skeptical members of your team, consider the publicity value, customer and employee loyalty, and return on investment of committing to a sustainable or socially impactful cause.

If you or your colleagues are looking for a formal foundation in sustainable capitalism and how to be a socially responsible business, explore Sustainable Business Strategy to build the necessary skills to do well as a business while doing good in the world.

Once the ball is rolling, design a CSR report outlining your company’s efforts. Even if it’s just a few pages long, explaining your efforts, impact, and plans is worth the time. If you’re driven by purpose and a clear plan, others may read about it and support your business on its journey toward corporate social responsibility.

Are you interested in making an impact on your community and the planet? Explore our three-week online course Sustainable Business Strategy and other Business in Society courses to learn how to be a purpose-driven professional.

Catherine Cote

About the Author

Catherine Cote is a marketing coordinator at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at an early-stage SaaS startup where she found her passion for writing content, and at a digital consulting agency, where she specialized in SEO. Catherine holds a B.A. from Holy Cross, where she studied psychology, education, and Mandarin Chinese. When not at work, you can find her hiking, performing or watching theatre, or hunting for the best burger in Boston.