Creating an interactive, accessible annual sustainability report

Campus Sustainability Office, Student Intern October 6, 2020
Annual sustainability report sections in circles

A screenshot of the interactive online 2019-2020 Sustainability Report | Campus Sustainability Office

On Monday, September 21, the Campus Sustainability Office released its first-ever interactive annual sustainability report. The 2019-2020 report features a summary of sustainability progress on campus for the past year, including a timeline of significant events, student-led campus innovations, and Cornell's path to carbon neutrality. 

Cornell's Sustainability Office has published annual sustainability reports for the past decade as traditional pdf formats. To celebrate the accomplishments of the FY 2019-2020, the Office decided to move to a more accessible, immersive online format.  

In early 2020, Cornell University became the first Ivy League and the sixth institution in the world to achieve STARS Platinum, the highest rating from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), a transparent, comprehensive sustainability reporting tool used by over 1,000 campuses. Cornell received a perfect score in 45 out of 61 reporting areas, excelling in sustainability learning outcomes, research and scholarship, and campus as a living laboratory, among many others.

The annual report design process began with an intention to capture this achievement and make the 1,000s of metric points available in the full STARS report more accessible to the campus community and public by creating an engaging, interactive, data-driven online report. 

Here is a list of takeaways from the creation of the report, as compiled by the Sustainability Office's summer fellow:

1. Research is key

Researching your organization is essential to create a data-driven report. It's also helpful to look at other sustainability reports from non-profits, universities, and even corporations to determine the best format and feel for your report. 

Cornell collects sustainability data in every department year-round through STARS. STARS is a great tool to keep track of qualitatively and quantitatively metrics, making year-to-year and peer-to-peer comparison simple. The annual report team distilled the many reporting fields from STARS into key categories of interest to the Cornell campus, while also highlighting remarkable successes or interesting figures. 

2. Know your audience 

Traditionally, annual reports tend to be lengthy documents filled with statistics and large pieces of text. But in the age of Tiktok and Instagram Reels, shorter is better if engaging with a younger audience. 

For this report, the team focused on easily shareable fast facts, captivating visuals, and feature stories. The content was geared towards hot topics on campus, and subjects that both students and faculty were vocal about and deeply invested in. For instance, the report celebrated student-led efforts on social justice issues and food insecurity with quick facts that drove real change on campus. 

 A snapshot of the annual report, highlighting 78 Green Teams, $118K raised for racial justice, and 1,400+ students served by Anabel's Grocery
The annual report highlights community-led impact on campus

3. Choose your content carefully 

Every report offers the opportunity to tell a compelling story. But constructing an impact-driven narrative means narrowing down information to the real highlights of the year. So ask yourself, are there any topics trending? Do people seem to be particularly invested in any? Did you reach a milestone that you had been working towards for some time now?

For example, Cornell's moratorium on new fossil fuel investments was critical to include in the report after divestment protests ensued earlier in the year. In addition, the moratorium asserts the underlying theme of the report: Cornell's commitment to carbon neutrality 

4. Create a compelling design

It's no longer enough to publish a simple textual document. The colors, layout, and interactivity of the report are critical to keep readers engaged. Thankfully, graphic design is easier than ever with free tools, such as Canva, which are easier to master than paid versions with a steep learning curve, like Adobe Photoshop. So explore data visualization options, use high-quality images, and arrange visual varieties that are captivating and true to your brand. 

Our scrollable, web-based design makes the report easier to read across all platforms. However, it's always important to keep accessibility in mind and create a document that follows web accessibility rules. Cornell's policy on web accessibility mandates WCAG 2.0 or higher.

 A snapshot of the annual report, highlighting Cornell's moratorium on fossil fuel investments
A snapshot from the annual report's timeline, showcasing Cornell's moratorium on fossil fuel investments


5. Promote it!

In such a saturated digital environment, reaching an audience is nearly impossible without promotional materials. Once the report is done and published, you need to drive people to it.  For targeting college students, social media is a great tool. According to Pew Research, nearly 80% of adults aged 18-29 use Facebook, and 67% use Instagram. For reaching staff, email newsletters and articles are also effective. In this case, the team decided to announce the report's release through the campus sustainability monthly newsletter. Additionally, the release was accompanied by a social media campaign that shared fast facts in the report.

So, whether you are a non-profit, corporation, or a small sustainability office for a university, annual sustainability reports are crucial to assert a commitment to sustainability, increase transparency, hold your organization accountable, and inspire further impact.