The initial goal of much environmental reporting was simply to demonstrate a company's commitment to the environment. The debate, however, has moved on, and now the central objective of any environmental report has to be able to communicate environmental performance. Further wider ranging objectives may also be attributed to the document, including the acknowledgment of a shared responsibility for the state of the environment, to differentiate the organization from its competitors, to obtain social approval for operating practices, and perhaps most commonly to demonstrate regulatory compliance. Detailing environmental performance and associated trends, however, must still remain the core function of an environmental report.
In practice, environmental reports can range from a simple public relations statement to a detailed and in-depth examination of the company's environmental performance, policies, practices and future direction. The 1995 award-winning Thorn EMI Environmental Report is an example of the latter.
Companies that undertake the environmental reporting process are often at different stages of environmental management. This will have obvious implications for both the depth and content of the report they can produce - and may go some way to explain the wide variety of environmental reports produced each year. UNEP's Technical Report on Company Environmental Reporting6 graphically illustrated this linkage in its five 'Stages in corporate environmental reporting' summarized below:
Stage 1: Green glossies, newsletters. Short statement in annual report,
Stage 2: One-off environmental report. Often linked to first policy statement.
Stage 3: Annual reporting linked to environmental management system.
Stage 4: Provision of full TRI-style performance data on annual basis.
Stage 5: Sustainable development reporting. Linking of environmental, economic and social aspects of corporate performance.