Friday, November 25, 2016

The missing piece of the materiality puzzle

Earlier this year, I had quite a lot of fun as a GRI-appointed Quality Control Officer, whose role is to attend GRI training courses as an observer and report back to GRI if certified GRI training is being conducted professionally, competently and in line with GRI standards. This is fascinating for me, mainly because it's so interesting to hear what training delegates ask about and comment on during the course. In one session, a delegate asked the ultimate G4 (now GRI Standards) question - the very same one that I asked GRI Standards leading architect Bastian Buck of GRI, three years back:

Is it OK to write a G4 report with just one material issue? 

The answer of course is Yes and No.

Yes, because technically, if you have determined that your organization has only one material impact, then disclosing this and using GRI to report it does actually tick the box.

No, because, I believe, no organization can be so simple that its impact is entirely mono-dimensional. Even micro-businesses operate across more than one dimension. No business has just one stakeholder.

Behind this ultimate question, then, is the deeper consideration of how organizations define their most material impacts for the purpose of strategy development and reporting. It's not so much about whether you can ride the framework with one material issue; it's about the value you derive from understanding what's material for your business. 

Materiality and Strategy 
One of the positive developments following the introduction of G4 was the elevation of materiality from dormant to active in the minds of companies and reporters. Transitioning to G4 has generally appeared to cause companies to engage in some level of thinking about what's material and how to define it. In some cases, this has been a meaningful exercise where materiality is the result of insightful stakeholder dialogue and the precursor to a multi-year sustainability strategy and basis for reporting. In other cases, we are still seeing the disconnect - where companies have, on the one hand, a sustainability strategy and, on the other hand, a list of material issues that bears no resemblance to the strategy and a report which covers everything except what is deemed material. The next stage in materiality maturity is helping companies to see that this all plays out on the same playground. Sustainability strategy has to be the result of materiality analysis. Materiality can never be in a vacuum.

Materiality and Impacts
Which brings me to another interesting and highly geeky thing I did this week. I listened in on the GRI Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB) meeting (for the second time). It's fascinating to be a fly on the wall as the GSSB debates the different aspects of developing GRI Standards. I have to commend GRI and GSSB on full transparency here - all the meeting documents are available and the meeting itself is audio live-streamed (shame about the video!) - and it's a truly illuminating discussion... if you are a reporting geek like me.

One of the topics that came up this time around was the definition of materiality and the clarification of this in the new GRI Standards. GRI maintains that to date, people have "misinterpreted" the definition of materiality, and that the new terminology in GRI Standards makes this much clearer. GRI Standards 100:1.3 states: "Relevant topics, which potentially merit inclusion in the report, are those that can reasonably be considered important for reflecting the organization’s economic, environmental, and social impacts, or influencing the decisions of stakeholders. In this context, ‘impact’ refers to the effect an organization has on the economy, the environment, and/or society (positive or negative)."

In G4, material impacts were defined as follows:
In the GRI 100 Glossary of the GRI Standards, it is now clarified as follows:
A Sustainability Report should therefore report impacts OF the business and ON the decisions of stakeholders. It is not about the impacts of sustainability on the business. The guidance matrix in the GRI Standards remains the same in the GRI Standards is it was in G4 (though the colors have changed a little ūüėĆ) (NB: I remind you that a matrix is NOT necessary for GRI Reporting - a list of priority issues is perfectly adequate.)

This the application of this matrix - or specifically, the focus of each of the axes -  has commonly been misused in G4 reporting.

3M's 2016 Sustainability Report, for example, uses reputation on the Y axis and stakeholders on the X axis:

The Fedex 2016 Global Citizenship Report uses stakeholders and business success:

Both these approaches do not reflect the actual intention of the GRI framework. The GRI approach is designed to create a report that reflects impacts on the economy, people and planet. The shape and size of the impact of your specific business is key to defining your positive (or negative) contribution to society. The primary focus in sustainability reporting should be the size and nature of the impacts OF your business and how your business affects our lives. In the GRI Standards, that should now be crystal clear. The outcomes of the way your business addresses mitigating negative impacts or enhancing positive impacts is reflected in your reputation, business success and value creation.

In the conversation at the GSSB, where I was a fly, a concern was raised that some companies have spent fortunes on materiality assessments that include this measure of "importance to business success". "What should they do now?", was the question. Well, it's not the end of the world. There is some overlap. Quite often, these issues will naturally coincide. Almost always, in fact. But in the next review of material impacts, there's an opportunity to better align with the letter and spirit of the reporting standard (and stakeholder expectations).

Which brings me to the more important question: How do you prioritize material impacts?

Materiality and Prioritization
The big weakness in the GRI Standards is the lack of robust guidance for defining the process for prioritizing material impacts. GRI could have been prescriptive in this area. The GRI Standards omit the guidance that was contained in G4 around the stages of defining material impacts: identification, prioritization, validation and review. However, even that guidance did not prescribe a robust process for getting from the universe of many impacts to the fewer most material impacts.  Few companies, if any, actually report this process in a way that help us understand the voices that counted in prioritizing specific impacts.

It's easy enough to define the landscape of relevant issues. But the prioritization has often been reduced to a number-crunching exercise, where different groups give scores to different topics, the numbers are added up and voila - you have a matrix. The outcome of this process can vary widely depending on which voices you count, what weight you give to each voice, how each voice assesses the value of each impact and the weighting factors you use to roll that up into one coherent list of issues. These details are rarely disclosed by companies. The entire basis upon which material impact reporting rests is therefore not transparent and possibly, not robust.

Lloyds Bank publishes a Materiality Report.

The bank describes its process for defining material impacts:

This looks like an invested process. A universe of 50 issues was established. Representatives of six stakeholder groups (including employees as one group) took part in an online survey to rank the issues in order of importance. The online input was supplemented by the opinions of Lloyds external Stakeholder Advisory Group who provided "proxy representation on behalf of some of these groups". The responses were weighted according to "stakeholder group sample and data quality with priority given to direct feedback and Stakeholder Advisory Panel feedback". Then it was all rolled up into a set of 14 issues in 5 categories that appear to have equal priority as the most material impacts.

The issues look to be a reasonable mix of what we might expect a large banking group to prioritize at a general level. But they could also be the issues of any bank anywhere in any country. Trust in business, job creation, access to products and services, customer satisfaction - this tells me nothing about Lloyds Banking Group that is specific to that company. This begs the questions: How detailed was the initial universe of material issues? How was the weighting of stakeholder responses constructed?

Another bank, for example, presents a more company-sector specific picture. Westpac Australia's materiality matrix includes impacts such as positive impact finance, financial capability and empowerment, digital product and service transformation (an issue which is sweeping the banking industry worldwide for obvious reasons) and macroeconomic and demographic trends that are current in the materiality assessment period.

Westpac's matrix refers to impacts that are important to stakeholder and important to the business, but, despite this bank's detailed disclosure of stakeholder issues and responses, we are still left in the dark about the process used to assign prioritization to these top 18 material impacts. What influenced the positioning of the dots on this matrix? How were the different stakeholder inputs evaluated?

Next week, I will be presenting the findings of an analysis I performed on behalf of BSI, the UK's national standards body, of sustainability performance and reporting standards that are used predominantly today. The presentation will serve as a basis for dialogue at an event hosted by BSI to consider where standardization or additional focused guidance may assist companies in advancing sustainability performance and reporting. 

If materiality is central to reporting, does the process of defining materiality not merit greater structure and transparency? Good process, good outcome. But what is the process for determining materiality? Every company uses its own logic to develop a process that delivers a result. But if the process is flawed, then the result is flawed. How can we know that companies are reporting the most material issues? If the process is different in every case, the outcomes are not comparable. One of the recommendations I am tabling for discussion next week is that there should be robust process standards for the determination of material impacts. What do you think? I'd welcome your thoughts as we consider this fundamental question that goes to the heart of relevant corporate transparency. The actual event is fully booked with a long waiting list, so if you have a strong view, write to me here or comment on this blog. I am very interested to hear your views.

In the meantime, the good news is that companies are making efforts to define material impacts. Even an imperfect, undisclosed process is a start. As I often say, 80% of something is better than 100% of nothing.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine:   

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Trump versus Clinton or SASB versus GRI

Topical as ever on the CSR Reporting Blog, although usually not party-political, I was struck by some of the similarities in the current U.S. Presidential Election and the sustainability standards reporting landscape. In fact, we might liken the Trump-Clinton adversarial position to the SASB-GRI position, where the stakes have just been raised with the official publication of the GRI Standards.  

GRI was created as the voice of the people in 1999 to support the inevitable need of wide groups of stakeholders for increasing transparency about business practices and corporate accountability. Over the years, GRI has remained steadfastly true to its multi-stakeholder process (sometimes, sadly, at the expense of speed and flexibility) and continues to deliver the only broad set of globally applicable standards for sustainability reporting available today. With the vast majority of reporting companies using GRI guidelines, and, I expect, an equally vast majority planning to transition to the GRI Standards in the next reporting cycle, GRI's voice has been a dominant one on the sustainability landscape for many years. Unfazed by the absence of a CEO in this current period, the mission goes beyond individual interests, and the Standards promise to elevate GRI's position in the global debate - especially in the political arena where governments make decisions and regulators earn their bread. The voice of GRI is the voice of how business affects us. Often, the actions of business affect our bank accounts, but for most of us, they affect the quality of our environment, the values we hold dear and the way we live happy, productive lives. (Cue: violins).

SASB was created in 2011 with a different purpose. Distilled into one sentence, that purpose (as I interpret it) is to help people who have more money make more money with sustainability in mind. SASB states its vision and mission as: "The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board sets industry-specific standards for corporate sustainability disclosure, with a view towards ensuring that disclosure is material, comparable, and decision-useful for investors." This is how it's portrayed in a video screenshot on the SASB website:

Helping investors make more money in itself is nothing to be ashamed of. SASB's approach has been to split the business of corporations into different sectors, and develop a comprehensive range of standards, focusing on the mostly sector-specific sustainability-related issues that affect the financial valuations of companies for investors. SASB has had an amazing crazy-busy time, consulting with corporations and investors and pulling together sustainability accounting standards across 79 industries in 10 sectors. The full set was published in March 2016. It's been a mammoth job and the outputs are very clear.

At the center of SASB's raison d'√™tre has always been that existing sustainability reporting is rubbish for investors. Sure, I don't recall SASB ever using the word rubbish, but that's how I understand it. For example, in a letter from SASB to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission in July 2016, SASB refers to Sustainability Reports as "glossy, attractive publications, often developed in consultation with a company’s marketing department or a public relations firm that describe a company’s achievements with respect to environmental, social, governance, and related matters" and "sustainability reports generally include information that is immaterial for purposes of investment decision-making. These reports tended to make the reporting company look as good as possible to stakeholders other than investors" and "Standalone sustainability reports are often prepared by corporate communications departments or public relations firms. They tend to be positively biased and do not provide investors with a true and fair representation of performance on material risks....This practice of producing a glowing sustainability report is known as “greenwashing”." No doubt then, that investors don't think much of sustainability reporting, according to SASB.

SASB goes further in its public comments to GRI during the Exposure Draft Period of the GRI Standards, submitting a 4-page letter, which includes the paragraph:

"Perhaps GRI is better placed in providing a forum for stakeholders to voice their concerns and ideas"? Seriously? After 17 years of driving the sustainability conversation by creating reporting frameworks that have been adopted and recognized as best practice by thousands of organizations globally, the suggestion is that GRI backs off and runs a chat-club while SASB's largely untried and untested Standards become the SEC endorsed/mandated reporting tool for a small pool of U.S. public corporations? That’s a bit off in my book. It made me think of the adversarial positions we are currently witnessing in the U.S. Presidential Election. In politics, for you to win, someone has to lose.

Portraying GRI as a virtually useless initiative that's encouraging companies to greenwash, and the thousands of sustainability reporters around the world as creators of imbalanced marketing blurb to make them look good is a distortion. SASB wants to be the recognized standard that the U.S. SEC endorses.  The above-mentioned letter to the SEC concludes: "Because of SASB’s approach, with its emphasis on due process and adherence to U.S. securities law, we believe it would be appropriate for the SEC to acknowledge SASB standards, once they become final, as an acceptable framework for companies to use in their mandatory filings to comply with Regulation S-K in a cost-effective and decision-useful manner." Now that GRI is a formal Standard, and not just a framework, SASB has real competition. 

Even before the GRI Standards were published, the GRI reporting guidelines (specifically G4) were used widely in both non-financial AND financial reporting. For example, using CaspianTM powered by DatamaranTM , eRevalue's brilliant corporate disclosure research tool, covering more than 44,000 corporate reports, it took me just a split second to discover that GRI was referenced 733 times in 2016 in financial reports and SEC filings, whereas, in this same period SASB was referenced just 18 times. That's in addition to the >800 non-financial (sustainability) reports that reference GRI, versus 51 non-financial reports that reference SASB. (Interestingly, SASB may be becoming a tool that's used more in non-financial reporting than for financial reporting. Oops!)  Of the 18 financial reports published in 2016 that reference SASB, only one actually reports against the sector indicators according to the relevant SASB Standard. All the others mention SASB once - in reference to the frameworks and guidance used in the preparation of a materiality matrix. Of these 18 financial reports, 14 include a full GRI G4 report with a Content Index, or refer to a standalone G4 report in addition to the financial report. The remaining four companies mention GRI as a guidance framework for the materiality assessment.  

Now, let's be clear. SASB has a very legitimate and useful agenda. Make sustainability disclosure more relevant and useful for the U.S. financial markets. Address the very specific information needs of investors. Help the financial markets enhance value creation. Efficiency. Comparability. Clarity. Focus. Sector-specific. It's all good. But as good as SASB is, SASB is not better by telling GRI to go and sulk in a corner because GRI has a different definition of materiality or because proper use of the GRI framework is evolving rather than perfect.

Sure, GRI-based reporting is fraught with issues of quality, good news rather than balanced news, and omissions. I have been a constant voice of the reporting quality mantra. It's true that some Sustainability Reports are glossy brochures. That's not to say the framework doesn't add value. GRI has been used tens of thousands of times over tens of years in hundreds of countries. How many times have the SASB standards been used in practice? How is the quality of adherence to the SASB Standards assessed? How many investors used SASB based disclosures and found them to be relevant to their investment decisions? What's the prognosis about how investors will actually use the information reported according to SASB Standards, if they are ever used by more than a couple of corporations?

In my work of more than 10 years as a sustainability reporting consultant, I know first-hand the tough deliberations that go into sustainability reporting and the processes companies go through to make quality and meaningful disclosure. I witness a genuine intent to present good and relevant information for stakeholders. I believe the reports of today are much more balanced than those of some years ago. But there is obviously still some way to go.

Marjella Alma, CEO and co-Founder of eRevalue, developer of a groundbreaking analytics platform for emerging ESG, regulatory and reputational risk assessment, is very much at home in this space. Marjella says: "The collective push for disclosure on sustainability issues is impressive. Irrespective of the specific framework, there is growing evidence that companies are including non-financial issues into all kinds of reports, including 10-K’s and Annual Reports. If you look at the issues, rather than the frameworks, you can see companies embracing the thought leadership and this push to more meaningful disclosure. GRI's work of the past 20 years is incredible; the global uptake including emerging markets, not just large multinationals, has made a big difference. The sector-specificity of SASB is a helpful addition. Ultimately, it's about helping companies understand 1. what issues are out there 2. manage them properly and 3. use the right metrics that reflect their business model. At eRevalue, we are making it much easier and much more efficient for companies to know what’s on the radar and do something about it."

What alarms me about the sustainability reporting landscape is this lack of respect and collaborative spirit. It may be that investors have different needs than non-financial stakeholders. It may be that materiality in sustainability reporting is used differently than materiality in a U.S. regulatory framework. But that doesn't mean that respectful, collaborative, constructive coexistence of these two approaches for maximum benefit would not be advantageous for financial markets. Both GRI and SASB organizations together are spending around $15 million per year to advance this - our - agenda. Perhaps that money could be used more efficiently with a greater degree of synergy. Instead of telling GRI to back off, maybe there should be a serious discussion about how to jointly provide guidance that meets the needs of SEC regulatory filings, investors and other stakeholders. I am sure this is possible. SASB has done amazing work in articulating sustainability priorities by sector. This is GRI's Achilles Heel. GRI has done amazing work in creating a strong framework that has put disclosure on the map around the world. There is surely something SASB can learn from that. Do we, as stakeholders, need to live with either/or? Can't we have both, in good spirit?

Which brings me back to the election. Only one candidate will win. One wins, one loses. It doesn’t have to be that way in sustainability. But then, I never was a politician but will always be an optimist.


elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine: 

Monday, October 24, 2016

GRI Standards - the fun starts now

A while back I published an overview of the GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards Exposure Draft. Well, now, the Standards are no longer in draft form. They are in real-live-downloadable-usable-bloggable format. Get your free copy here on the GRI website. Not an awful lot has changed since the Exposure Draft. The main thing is GRIs optimism that this makes GRI a more welcome player at the high-stakes tables where governments, regulators and policy-makers play. As a guideline-maker, GRIs legitimacy was apparently not grounded enough to have equal voice. As a standard-setter, GRI has come of age and has the vote. For corporations who  transition to GRI Standards, though, the changes probably represent:
  • an administrative headache - all the basic templates and formats developed for G4 will now have to change
  • a change of language yet again - we all just got used to Aspects with a capital A - now it's back to topics
  • a fear of greater scrutiny at some point in the future, possibly certification, that means a more robust approach to reporting will be required, rather than the sloppy use of G4 that we see by many reporters who declare use of the G4 but do not actually make the grade
  • a fear that a price-tag will soon be placed on use of the Standards - GRI has to fund the GSSB somehow, right? 
  • an opportunity to influence the Standards development - changes may now be quicker and easier with the modular Standard format, as only one piece needs to change or be added instead of the entire framework. The change from G3 to G3.1, for example, was confusing - the whole framework changed because a couple of new indicators were added. 
Billed with just a smattering of hype as the First Global Sustainability Reporting Standards Set to Transform Business, the Standards offer some advantages over G4, but it will take more than this to transform business. The move to Standards is not, and was not designed to be, an overhaul of G4 to deliver a new wow version. No bells and whistles. The move to Standards does not incorporate significant elements which will improve the quality or robustness of reporting, the comparability of reporting, the way companies define and prioritize material issues Aspects topics and how they determine what and what not to report, the use and credibility of assurance practices etc. While there has been some tidying up of the silly bits in G4, and some clarification of the ill-worded bits, nothing substantive beyond the wordsmithing and number sequencing has changed.

Look beyond the numbers
However, you cannot simply change the numbers and that's it. You have to check in with each Standard. For example, one of the disclosures that few reporters actually report fully: GRI 403, formerly Aspect Occupational Health and Safety, including former G4-LA4, G4-LA6, G4-LA7 and G4-LA8:

Disclosure 403-2 is the former G4-LA6.  See the difference in the wording:

The former relates to (1) total workforce and (2) independent contractors. The latter, 403-2, relates to (1) employees and (2) everybody else. This is much clearer in the new Standard but may require a change in the way some companies report. 

Beyond these incremental improvemental differences, GRI Standards come with one critical change and one new demand:

One critical change
G4's 46 Material Aspects have now been converted into 33 topic-specific Standards. That's two fewer than in the Exposure Draft. The material topics table would now look like this (except the new Standards do not include such a table):

That's a total of three universal standards and 33 topic-specific standards - one for each topic.

All the Standards are in BMW-style series with no subsets: 200 series for Economic, 300 series for Environment and 400 series for Social. All former Aspects relating to grievance mechanisms are moved to the Management Approach Standard, and are not identified as material topics in their own right.

For reporters, this means that if you retain the same material topics, you still might need to revise the indicators you report. For example, if Marketing Communications were a material topic, Core reporters would have selected one of two disclosures - G4-PR6 or G4-PR7. Now, the new Marketing and Labeling topic includes both Product and Service Labeling, which was associated with three indicators - G4-PR3, G4-PR4 and G4-PR5. The new Marketing and Labeling disclosure has been trimmed down to exclude some disclosures that are now General Disclosures, leaving three possible options in GRI Standard 417, only one of which was formerly Marketing Communications (417-3).

Therefore,  as a Core reporter, you now have three options where you had one previously, but as a Comprehensive reporter, you have three mandatory disclosures where previously you had five. This might sound a little confusing, and it is. But for most of the disclosures, all you need to do is switch the numbers. In some cases, companies might have to realign their material topics to the GRI Standards and revise the selection of topic-specific disclosures. 

Another point to make here is that the GRI Standards now make it quite explicit that it's just fine to use a different indicator than the ones included in the 33 topic-specific Standards. Standard 101-2.5.3 includes the possibility to report "other appropriate disclosures" if there is no appropriate GRI Standard.

For example, you are a Food and Beverage Manufacturer and have selected Community Investment and Philanthropy as a material topic. Interestingly, philanthropy has never been identified as possibly ever "material" by GRI - this is rather odd, as strategic philanthropy can be a critical part of a corporation's impact on society - and most companies just LOVE to report on this. 

Funnily enough, this is exactly one of the material topics selected by PepsiCo in its very recently published 2015 Performance with Purpose Report, which I was just reading. PepsiCo deals with this in an interesting way. Instead of including an indicator in the GRI Content Index, PepsiCo explains: "At this time there are no relevant GRI indicators that directly correspond with PepsiCo’s material aspect of Global Citizenship. PepsiCo monitors and reports on this aspect through the KPIs discussed in the Global Citizenship section." 

Now, with GRI Standards, PepsiCo can define its own disclosure of measurement of progress against this material topic, provided these disclosures are subject to the "same technical rigor" as the GRI Standards. In fact, this was also an option under G4, but it was a sort of secret option that no-one knew about unless they asked. Now it's more explicit, and enables companies to select more meaningful performance indicators to reflect progress being made in different areas. 

One of the most perplexing aspects of G4 always was the limited flexibility to reflect the diversity of material topics. If your material topic was, for example, Alcohol Related Harm, as it is in the Diageo 2015 GRI Report,  you wouldn't find a related Aspect among the GRI pre-paid lists. What to do? One catch-all option in G4 was to use G4-EC8 - "examples of the significant identified positive and negative indirect economic impacts" for anything that was not covered by another indicator. I have pretty much used G4-EC8 to death over the years. Another option is to use a combo  of existing Aspects. This is what Diageo does:

However, this is not entirely satisfactory, as none of the Performance Indicators that Diageo reports under any of these aspects relate to alcohol in society - they all relate to safety of products manufactured, quality control and labeling requirements. None of these indicators actually address the material issue. Therefore, the only real option for Diageo under these circumstances is to do what we discussed above  - disclose the Management Approach and use a proprietary non-GRI topic and indicator. As it happens, Diageo does have a perfectly fabulous disclosure on this: 

It's a clear strategy statement and targets. This can be used with  G4 to disclose against this material issue. With GRI Standards, the fact that this is now explicit (Standard 101-2.5.3) might make the use of the Standards easier and more relevant for many reporters who suffered from Aspect perplexy.

One new demand

In the GRI Standards,the GSSB has snuck in something else:

Standard 101 - 3.4. If you refer to the GRI Standards in any way in your report (and there are a set of prescribed statements in the Standards that define how to say you did the GRI thing), then you are obliged to notify GRI - either by sending GRI a copy of the report or by registering the report with GRI on the Standards page. Except that at present, there is no link or form to use to notify on that page. I wonder what GRI will do will all these thousands of notifications ... let's assume 8,000 reports reference the GRI Standards in any given year, that's 30 notifications every working day. And who will know if reporters do not notify GRI? I can understand that GRI wants to keep tabs on use of the Standards, but this is likely to happen only when GRI charge money for certification or use of the Standards logo... forgive me for being skeptical that this is on the cards at some point. 

18 months to get ready and steady
In the meantime, GRI Standards will be free and effective for sustainability reports published on or after 1 July 2018. So you have plenty of time to get your disclosures in order. Early adopters gain the advantage of being early adopters. That is, you get first rations of paracetamol. Overall, the language is clearer, the repetition is less and the direction is more logical. You can download all the Standards in one consolidated set at the GRI Standards download center. Whew, that's a relief. And only 443 pages as well.

I am sure that we will see many GRI Standards-based reports published in 2017, ahead of the 2018 cut-off date. The fun is about to start.....

Ahem.. needless to say, I will be very happy to offer the expertise and incredible service of me and my company, Beyond Business,  to help YOUR company transition to GRI Standards and become an early adopter. Paracetamol included free with this service. Contact elaine NOW before stocks run out.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine: 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

First Report Trust Factor: Arby's

This is one for the First Report Trust Factor Series. It's all about sandwiches in the U.S. For an overview of the ten Trust Factors, see this post. 

Food and Beverage - U.S. - Not GRI- 44 pages

Arby’s is a nationally franchised sandwich restaurant brand, with more than 3,300 restaurants, founded in 1964. Headquartered in Atlanta, GA, Arby's has company-owned and franchise restaurants across the United States. Arby's employs 60,000+ people. 

The CEO Statement: 
Sometimes, in a first report, you just have to understand that any progress is progress and that companies have a right to be proud of any achievement. Arby's CEO confirms he is proud of what Arby's has achieved, one of the blurby statements I love to hate, but that's not what affects the Trust Factor most in this opener. What I am missing is a little depth. The CEO talks about employee giving, community projects and a water-saving irrigation program. These are good. But I'd like to have seen some reference to the impact of Arby's core business - how the business is changing peoples lives, not just through charity and eco-efficiency.  TF= 

Material focus: 
Arby's has identified four material (though not called material) areas of focus under a branded proprietary CSR program called PurposeFULL®. This includes: YouthFULL® - empowering youth,  SkillFULL® -  a winning culture, ResourceFULL® - good stewards of the environment and FlavorFULL® - adopting the highest standards in the food industry. This is evidence of thought about the approach to CSR at Arby's and these headlines frame the report. It's not quite a list of material impacts but it comes close.  TF+

Adherence to GRI: 
Nope. Not GRI. No indicators, no numbers, no Index. TF-

Transparency maturity: 
This report could be so much more impactful (and credible) if it contained some data. About the only place in this report where there are a few numbers is in the environmental section and these are mostly expressed in relative improvements rather than absolute performance data and impacts. In future reports, Arby's should find a way to disclose key performance metrics across the range of material topics in Arby's CSR program. TF-

Barely a hint of challenges or obstacles to overcome in this report. The only reference to any sort of challenge that I found was the fact that customers are confused about which elements of packaging to recycle at franchised outlets. TF-

Examples of practice: 
Arby's doesn't present "case studies" in a structured sense, but the report describes examples of activities in the reporting year. While there is evidence of a range of positive actions, the report lacks solid data that tells us these initiatives are making a difference. For  example, in 2015, Arby’s joined forces with Bellevue University in Nebraska to develop a custom learning program exclusively for Arby’s team members. Participants can earn a certificate of completion that is worth 36 college credits. But we are not told how many employees joined the program nor how they progressed. On the other hand, in another example relating to the environment, Arby's shares results of an irrigation project: "In 2015, through a six month pilot that spanned 85 restaurants, we saved 7.4 million gallons of water." TF+

Stakeholder voices: 
The report contains quotations from several senior Arby's execs and franchisees. The quotes add credibility, especially those from franchisees that give a flavor of how Arby's is helping them achieve economic growth and business development. The report also includes a perspective from the U.S. Department of Energy in relation to Arby's participation in its Better Buildings Challenge in 2015 - Arby's surpassed the BBC goal by improving energy performance 24% from a 2011 baseline. TF+

Contact person: 
No contact person and no generic email dump box. TF- 

Clarity of presentation:  
This is an easy read. Too easy. It's all narrative and photos, no numbers or charts or diagrams. TF= 

Design friendliness:  
It's a plain PDF, no hyperlinks, no fancy graphics. Well-laid out narrative and imagery. This images are real - not stock anonymous.  TF+

Trust Factor conclusion: 4xTF+   4xTF-  2xTF=
Overall, this report is a positive start and reflects a consciousness at Arby's of different aspects of contribution to society and communities. The basics are there: supporting employees, supporting communities, maintaining high standards of food preparation, stewarding the environment. The environmental section is a little more detailed and contains results of a range of eco-efficiency and resource improvement projects.

The word "proud" appears 12 times in this short report. For a first disclosure, there are some elements of this report that this company can be proud of - twelve times over. However, the  report disappoints in its lack of depth and lack of transparency.  Arby's is proud of its accomplishments and that's a good thing. On the other hand, such a large organization, employing more than 60,000 people, with an important impact on our relationship to food and on the food supply chain, we would hope that, in the future, this pride would translate into greater transparency with a focus on outcomes not actions. Otherwise, it looks like the main purpose of this PurposeFULL® report is PR-FULL®. If Arby's is serious about CSR, there needs to be another couple of FULLS: TransparentFULL® and AccountableFULL® in future reports. Perhaps even a little DataFULL®.

Arby's seems to have this in hand: "Throughout 2016 and into next year, we will develop a roadmap that will more robustly steer our PurposeFULL path forward including a strategy for each of our pillars, short and long-term goals as well as opportunities for deeper collaboration and impact."

This is a positive statement and hopeFULLy, we will see the fruits of these efforts reflected in the next report.  

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine:  

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Is philanthropy dead?

Apologies for that rather provocative title. Sort of. But it's a real question that I posed in one of the panels I chaired at the 7th  International Conference on Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility at Humboldt University in Berlin last week. It was a fabulous conference with some truly fascinating speakers from whom I learned a great deal. See Prof. Carol Adams's post with some of the key messages from the conference here.

You can also listen to all the Day 2 plenary sessions via the live-stream recording that can be found here  (if you have 9 hours or so to spare).

The session I'll share in this post is the panel I chaired on Innovative Philanthropy and Impact Investing, which starts at 5:25:19 (hrs:mins:secs) of the live-stream with an introduction by Professor Dr. Joachim Schwalbach, the formidable conference organizer and spirit behind the event. The experts who joined me on the panel were: 

Lisa Hehenberger  - Assistant Professor, Department of Strategy and General Management, ESADE Business School   
K√§rim Chatti  - Market Director at ResponsAbility Investments
Johanna Mair - Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and Editor of the Standford Social Innovation Review
Thimo V. Schmitt-Lord  - Head of Foundations & Donations, Bayer Foundations 
Johannes Weber - Managing Director, Ananda Ventures - Social Venture Fund 

Lisa kicked off with an enlightening keynote, explaining the spectrum of philanthropy through to impact investing and the convergence towards a form of "blended social and financial value" creation. There are many hybrid ways of funding to create social value, Lisa explained. It doesn't need to follow the traditional separation of philanthropy for social value and investment for financial return. "It's possible for a foundation to be providing a grant in a more strategic way to a social enterprise that is generating revenues and it's also possible for an investor to start seeing some social and environmental returns with their investments."

Venture philanthropy is, then, very close to impact investing. Venture philanthropy is a long-term investment in an organization, providing both funding and also management support - often with an eye to measuring the impact of the organization and its activities. Impact investing is more or less the same thing, with the expectation of a financial return as well. Lisa highlighted the need for improved policy frameworks and greater transparency in impact measurement as the next stages in the evolution of this approach.

This being said, with the growth of impact investing and new types of corporations such as B Corps and Social Enterprises, the first question that I posed to the panel is: Is philanthropy dead? If both philanthropy and impact investing are designed to generate a social return, why does philanthropy still exist? What's the justification for philanthropy in this new context? 

The consensus view of the panel was that philanthropy is very necessary. In times of emergency, support is needed and there's no time to stop and calculate the social or financial return. You just need to help people. Also, in early stages of social enterprise development, seed funding is critical to support growth through to the stage where new enterprises are mature enough to be attractive to impact investors. At the same time, in early stages, enterprises do not have access to capital via loans as they have not yet developed their business infrastructure, and charities in most legal structures cannot take on debt in any case. Without philanthropy, these charities and social enterprises may not have the capacity to move out from first base. Thimo Schmitt-Lloyd actually prefers the term "non-profit investment", rather than philanthropy, as he feels that reflects the expectation of a form of return - not necessarily financial - which has meaning to the investor.

LISA: "You could almost see philanthropy as the research and development budget for social innovation. So if you don't have that, you don't get social innovation started. The impact investors would then have no deal flow and nothing to invest in." 

JOHANNA: "Philanthropy is absolutely not dead. Quite the opposite. There are two questions: Can the idea that you can invest and gain a social AND financial return be extended to all problems we have on the planet? No, of course it cannot. The second question is: What is new in philanthropy and how does that to social innovation? There is a lot of innovation in philanthropy - look at examples around the world in Germany or in Silicone Valley - entrepreneurs that turn into philanthropists - there is a competitiveness in terms of what kind of philanthropic endeavor you establish. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, doesn't use the 501(c)(3) (typical charity) vehicle. He uses an L3C  corporation structure as a vehicle for his philanthropic ventures. The drive to be innovative in this space is fueling new ways of philanthropic activity."  

THIMO: "If the risk profile of an investment is low, then the innovation potential is also low. The higher the risk, the higher the potential for failure. That's why you need very early investment in social innovation, because it provides the space to experiment, and sometimes fail, without the pressure of needing to generate a return."

So there you have it. Philanthropy is alive, kicking and innovating.. and setting the scene for responsible investment in its different forms. I then asked the next question on everybody's lips. Is impacting investing a compromise? Are investors compromising on the level of financial return they can achieve (versus mainstream investing) in order to achieve some form of social return?

K√ĄRIM: "In all discussions with investors and portfolio managers, return is key. We live in an environment where there are no interest rates ... so you have to look at your portfolio. Pension funds, family offices and corporate funds want returns. They want to see a nice return track record and return outlook. We deliver nice returns and nice risk profiles. On top of that we have an impact measurement system and we show all the social good that an investment supports, but that is on top. As soon as returns are tanking, large corporate investors pull out their money. In the Press Release, the CEO and the CSR Manager will emphasize the impact and the CSR benefits ... but in reality, decisions are made based on the risk-return profile. We invest in established businesses, possibly businesses planning an IPO or geographic expansion - this is different from the early stage investing that may need to be supported by philanthropy. Our investors know that."

JOHANNES: "In our social venture fund, it's different. Our funds work very well on a financial level but that's not why investors invest in us. They are not looking at the risk-return profile. Their focus is what sort of a difference their money will make."  

THIMO: Today, you also have to deliver a mission. Of course you have to deliver financially, but there must be a fit with the mission. Today, people ask, what's the impact? 

Our discussion also touched on different aspects of policy development, aligning employees and digitization in these areas of philanthropy and impact investment.

LISA: "One of the outcomes of the G8 Task Force was policy innovation. One example was in France - the Solidarity Savings Funds. If you are an employee in a French company, you can invest in a pension scheme where 90% is regular investment with a strict risk and return profile and 10% is invested in social enterprise. This has significantly increased investment levels in social enterprises in France, as it was designed to do."

K√ĄRIM: "We see huge differences across geographies in how pension funds are invested. I suggest you go back to your pension fund and ask how it invests your money. Some funds apply certain filters and positive or negative screening, but we also see more automatic alignment with responsible investment practice in certain countries such as Norway, Holland and Canada.. In some cases, employees are consulted about where the money should be invested."  

JOHANNES: "If you are a venture investor, you will probably be very interested in digital business models which may be highly innovative and are usually easier to scale. Of the businesses we invest in, around 40% have a digital aspect. Increasingly, IT-driven people want to work in this space. Digital natives are more interested in using their skills for social advancement even if they are not as well paid as they might be working on mainstream commercial initiatives." 

Some questions from the audience were rather incisive. For example, our panelists were asked: To what degree do impact investing and philanthropy divert attention and resources from driving real structural and social change? Is philanthropy about soothing our conscience and impact investing mainly about developing a new source of revenue? 

THIMO: "It depends how you define "return" for you as an investor. When return is progressing the ecosystems in which you operate so that you can operate better as a business, that's also a big return and not a diversion."

LISA: "Traditionally investors perhaps have this notion of two pockets. In one pocket is the money used generate to a financial return and in the other pocket is the money that's given away to make us feel good. That's changing. Now, both pockets are starting play a role in generating some form of return. There's a convergence at the individual level and also at the institutional level."

JOHANNA: "The old charitable model we all know has been replaced. It's not one single model of charity. It has become more strategic." 

And, to close, a couple of stories from Thimo that demonstrate the validity of different channels of investment through non-profit or venture philanthropy  showing that blended value that can be achieved through a strategic, holistic approach.

First, a story of two engineers who have developed a portable sterilizer for Africa that runs with solar energy and dirty water - and can therefore be used anywhere. It's cost is EUR 10,000 - modest enough, but still not affordable in most parts of Africa. As a rule, medical clinics in Africa do not have sterilization equipment and its a fact that, in Africa, 30% of deaths are due to unsafe medical practices. The Bayer Foundation is funding pilot devices to be provided free to social entrepreneurs who will take the sterilizers from clinic to clinic and sell not a machine, but the use of a sterilizer by the hour. In this way, a business model is formed that creates employment, upskilling for local distributors and a practical and affordable solution for clinics. Philanthropy funds the early stage and investment will kick in when the model us up and running.

Another example refers to early detection breast cancer tactile examinations. An entrepreneur found that using trained blind women as examiners (instead of physicians) can advance the detection of tumors by an average of nine months! This became relevant to the Bayer Foundation as law requires corporations in India to provide funding for CSR initiatives. Bayer discovered there are 60 million blind women in India while at the same time, breast cancer rates are among the highest in the world. Using "CSR" money to establish a training center for blind women to become examiners, Bayer starts with a philanthropic venture that can develop into an investment-worthy business as it scales, as women will pay a small fee for testing and the initiative will ultimately generate its own revenue.

The overriding conclusion, I think, it that philanthropy is not dead and we shouldn't attempt to kill it off. It serves a very important purpose in fueling early stage social development initiatives and also, in supporting communities when they need support with no strings attached. On the other hand, the emergence of different models, such as impact investing in its nascent forms and responsible investment in its larger scale frameworks provide additional blended value opportunities to get rich(er) and save the world all at the same time. Often, as in the Thimo's examples, this forms a sort of continuum starting with giving, moving into seed funding and developing into larger scale investing. 

So, when you are next reading the "community giving" sections of Sustainability Reports ... often seen as the "nice-to-have" rather than material elements of corporate impact ... you might have a slightly different perspective. 

Thanks to Joachim Schwalbach and all the expert speakers on this panel for a fascinating discussion.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine: 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Connecting for #Citizenship at Caesars

The publication of Caesars Entertainment's seventh annual 2015-2016 Citizenship Report is a testimony to the value of connecting all year round, and not just during reporting season. Caesars Entertainment is one of the best companies I know that connects on several social media platforms across a range of topics with regularity, creativity and consistency. That's why, in this Citizenship Report, the theme of connecting is highlighted and illustrated with Tweets and hand-held Message Boards. 

Caesars Entertainment Corporation is the world’s most diversified casino-entertainment provider and the most geographically diverse U.S. casino-entertainment company. A regular feature of the report is the Footprint, updated each year, showing the size and scale of the company.

Connecting is something Caesars does well. Perhaps this is what you might expect of a hospitality company. However, it's not to be taken for granted. Connecting at many levels with stakeholders is a cornerstone of sustainability and citizenship practice, and becomes a regular feed of interactions, sharing, learning and supporting that builds familiarity and trust. And add a little fun into the mix. The new Citizenship Report reflects this, from the senior management team right through the organization. 

Jan Jones Blackhurst - Executive Vice President of Government Relations and Corporate Responsibility

Alex Dixon, Assistant General Manager, Horseshoe Baltimore

Brooks Robinson, Regional Senior Vice President & General Manager, Harrah’s Cherokee

Jessica Rosman, VP, Procurement
Tweets in the report are dispersed throughout, supporting the narrative. This of course was only possible because Caesars maintains strong Twitter streams throughout the year from a variety of Twitter handles. The main one is the Citizenship stream (@CitizenCaesars). Then there is  Caesars diversity and supplier-diversity stream (@CZRDiversity) and Caesars charitable Foundation (@CaesarsFdn) and the corporate stream that includes many citizenship-related updates (@CaesarsEnt) and the Caesars "We Mean Business" Responsible Meetings stream (@CaesarsMeetings). And that's just to start with. Most of the 50+ properties at Caesars have their own Twitter streams where they amplify many of the citizenship messages to followers. There are few companies around that maintain such a pace on social media. It's a testimony to Caesars' respect for its stakeholders and openness to engage. 

For example, on a page where Caesars talks about advancing diverse suppliers, two Tweets are integrated into the story.

On a page where Caesars talks about creating memorable experiences for guests, with the new Jennifer Lopez sell-out residency, Tweets illustrate guests' excitement with the show of shows.

For every story in the report, and there are lots of stories, there's a Tweet, or several Tweets. As a channel of communication and engagement, Caesars gets the message real-time to where its followers are and listens to what they say back. It's modern, it's fun, it's transparent, it's citizenship. Of course, the publication of the report had to be followed up with a Twitter Chat. You can read the summary of the chat, hosted by Triple Pundit, here

But Caesars' report is more than Tweets and Message Boards. It's 110 pages of GRI G4 compliant reporting of advances in citizenship performance during the past year. It's also a first alignment with 8 of the 17 the Sustainable Development Goals, integrated with Caesars citizenship and sustainability strategy.

Overall, Caesars makes a strong contribution to economic development, with $9 billion in economic value created for stakeholders in 2015, bringing the total close to $40 billion in the past five years. Relatively speaking, Caesars contributes to communities more than three times the equivalent average value contributed by U.S. corporations.

This is not just about money. It's about the many different ways of being part of local communities, engaging and collaborating to support economic development and improvement in the quality of life. For example, 55% of Caesars employees are involved and invested in voluntary community activities in some way. Caesars' leadership in the development of responsible meetings defines specific sustainability standards for the thousands of meetings, conventions and conferences that Caesars hosts at its properties each year. The standards that Caesars requires of its suppliers through its Responsible Suppler Statement and the advancement of supplier diversity, engaging with diverse supplier communities and offering mentoring programs, are part of the social and economic value that Caesars creates. Also, Caesars takes a public stand against social inequalities and in favor of human rights, for example, as a founding partner of the Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) Employers Alliance formed in September 2015. BEST is the first public-private partnership in the U.S. to work across industries to prevent sex trafficking and sex buying. 

Caesars reports strong progress (again) in environmental efficiencies through Caesars' CodeGreen strategy, both in 2015 and since the start of the initiative in 2007.

And guess what, as they get older, Caesars employees are getting healthier. With an award-winning Employee Wellness Program that demonstrates incredible levels of participation and outcomes, employees can enjoy a healthier and happier... and hopefully longer life.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Responsible Gaming when talking about Caesars. But there's no news here. Caesars was the industry leader in Responsible Gaming programs as the first commercial company to address the issue of problem gambling in 1989, and Caesars remains the industry leader today.  Caesars continues to invest in training, communications and providing practical tools, such as self-exclusion, to ensure that people who come to gamble do so because they want to have fun. With 796 trained Responsible Gaming Ambassadors throughout properties in the U.S, and tens of thousands of employees trained each year, this for Caesars is par for the course. No news, but good news.

Caesars 2015-2016 Citizenship Report covers all of this, and more, in a clearly structured GRI G4 (core) report that is supported by a year of Tweets from multiple Twitter streams. This makes the report fun to read (maybe one of YOUR Tweets got into the report?) and also validates the content by demonstrating that citizenship, at Caesars, is day-by-day and not report-by-report.

As always, take a look. Give feedback!

Disclosure: You probably guessed that I worked on this report (as well as on Caesars prior three reports).  It's always a pleasure and honor to work with Caesars. Maybe one day, I might even get to meet Jennifer Lopez. If I do, I'll Tweet about it.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine: 
Related Posts with Thumbnails