Saturday, November 19, 2011

25 examples of Creativity in Sustainability Reports

25 Sustainability Reports are entered in the Creativity in Communications category in CRRA 12, the largest online annual Sustainability Reporting Awards. To enter this category, one assumes the reporters believe their report is meaningfully creative. What's creative in terms of Sustainability Reports? Well, according to, it's this:

Which report is a real pleasure to read, because the authors have given thought to both the content and the reader? Do you find the report engaging and informative, or boring and unimaginative? This award is for the report which best succeeds in getting its message across, using creativity as a defining factor.

What does Merriam Webster say about creativity?
The quality of being creative
The ability to create
Hmm, that didn't get us very far, did it ?

So what better way than to look at the reports entered in the Creativity in Communications category to see what we can find that make them elligible for a creativity award. Let's take 'em in alpha order.

(NB: All report links go to Report Profiles - you need to be registered to view - but then - you need to be registered to vote :) And you are planning to vote, right?)

Aggregate Industries UK Ltd Sustainability Report 2010 (GRI A+)
This report is called the "Seven Ages of Aggregate Industries" and opens up with an introduction that starts like this: " Having been part of the sustainability reporting process for around 10 years, we know that a corporate sustainability report isn’t the sexiest of reads and yet here we are for another year. You have made it to the introduction and we would like you to keep reading. After all, we have so much that we want to share. Many a sleepless night has been spent devising a way of turning 34 pages of information into a story that we hope will both inform and entertain." Yep. That's original, for sure. The report is structured around a kind of storyline that goes from Birth to a further six stages: Growth and Leading, Youth, Starting Out, Middle Age, Old Age and Retirement. In the Birth section, for example, Aggregate Industries talk about the birth of a pre-cast modular rail platform solution. I guess that explains why reporting isn't sexy. Ha-ha. The report is an entertaining read, and certainly is more creative than the standard marketplace, workplace, community and environment approach.

Birth from Aggregate Industries

Banco Bradesco Sustainability Report 2010 (GRI A+)
Banco Bradesco's 61 page report is packed with charts and figures and tables, so that your eyes jump around from narrative to visuals rather frequently. The different thing about this report is the way it handles glossary and links. Throughout the report, whenever there is something Banco Bradesco wants to explain, it has a call-out box which contains the information or link.

Calling out for more information at Banco Bradesco
On page 19, there are almost more call-outs than narrative. That's pretty creative.

This report is spectacular and stands out from the crowd. You can probably sense that it's going to be a different sustainability report experience when you see the cover - Michael Leibundgut holding the violin of a close friend that passed away. Not your standard hands-holding-a-globe, babies smiling or green pastures graphics.

The first 30 pages of this report is a magazine - a kind of cultural and environmental immersion with a sustainability flavor. Interesting pieces on art in Duesseldorf, pollinating bees, Switzerland's role in sustainability and electric cars, and more. The second 30-page section is the GRI report.

British American Tobacco Sustainability Report 2010 (GRI Undeclared) 
BAT are by now seasoned reporters and aim to present another face of the tobacco industry than the one which gets all the hard hits. Some might say - that's creativity! However, one of the approaches in this 219 page report is Answering Challenging Stakeholder Questions, such as :
# Should a tobacco company aim to be sustainable?
# Do you engage with stakeholders who are most critical of the tobacco industry?
# Isn't this all "PR spin"?
# Do you concentrate on developing markets that have less tobacco regulation?
# Can you be responsible when you need to compete?
Maybe BAT's responses are also creative? However, sustainability reporting should be about responding to stakeholders and not just we-did-this-aren't-we-great brochures, so in that respect, BAT are doing what it takes. You can send them any question and they will consider responding to it in their next report.

This is a 118 page report which follows a repeat sequence of priorities and progress and next steps in each section. The interesting thing about this report which breaks the mold is the two sections devoted to Sport and the Arts, and the way broadcasting can empower sports and a range of festivals, art events, ballet, books and more. Short case studies illustrate the narrative.  Arts has to be a creative thing, right ?
This has to be the most creative report for use of icons. Everything has an icon. A reindeer for wildlife monitoring. A windtower for wind farms. A syringe for free flu-shots. A briefcase for long term debt. A pylon for electricity. A hard-hatted person for employees. A coal cart for a coal project. And what seems like hundreds more. Icons = creativity? I am sure there is a connection somewhere. Overall, the report is has an attractive design with some nice info-graphics. It's an example of how great design can turn sustainability narrative into a creative report.

Creative presentation at Capital Power
This report is Creativity in Red. No points for guessing why red is the dominant color for Coca Cola reporting. The report is peppered with colored balloons with interesting data and facts.

Coca Cola Ent. balloons
Of course, as far as I know, Coca Cola Enterprises is the only company to call CSR "CRS". Perhaps that should count for a creativity award.

Danisco Sustainability Report 2010/2011 (GRI A+)
Following Danisco's acquisition by Du Pont last year, this is the last sustainability report to be published independently by Danisco. It's nice to see the company went ahead and published this report entitled "Ingredients for a Changing World" after the acquisition was announced. They could have taken the easy option to skip it. Danisco has a materiality matrix which takes up a whole page. Now, there's something creative!

Danisco's full page materiality matrix
Dell Corporate Responsibility and Report 2011 (GRI A)
Over 55 team members throughout 12 departments within the Dell organization were engaged in the collaborative creation of this 60 page report. This report was created in-house, for the first time. Hmm, personally, I recommend consultants :)  However, engaging staff in the writing of the report requires great process which I am sure involves a lot of creativity along the way. The conversation at Dell doesn't stay in house. They invite everyone to join the conversation.
Join Dell's sustainability conversation
Deloitte LLP Fiscal 2010 Corporate Responsibility Report (GRI B)
This is the third Deloitte report . It closes with a section called "Want to know more?" which pulls together all the relevant links to further information about issues highlighted in the report. This is the first time Deloitte uses the GRI framework and they cautiously claim to be the first among the “Big Four” organizations to issue a GRI report in the United States. They comment: "As might be anticipated for a private organization whose customary approach to sharing information is on a “need-to-know” basis, the road toward transparency is not always comfortable. As we move forward, we expect our GRI reporting to be more robust and comprehensive." That's a good disclosure and a differentiating aspect of Deloitte's reporting.

Gas Natural SDG SA 2010 Corporate Responsibility Report (GRI A+)
This is a serious 212 page report with plenty of detail . Some of the charts are so detailed that they take a while to digest.

Digesting data at Gas Natural
This 212 page report contains a special chapter entitled "How to Read the Corporate Responsibility Report" which serves as a reader guide. This is a nice touch, even though it appears only on page 40, by which time you have either worked it out or given up. The GRI Index is also cross linked with both the UNGC Principles and the Millennium Development Goals.

HP's 244 page report is not called a report at all. That's creative. It's also includes 17 pages of product descriptions - a kind of mini-product brochure inside the report. That's even more creative. However, no-one can fault HP on its comprehensive, intensive reporting for yet another year. It is clear that the company invests many resources into producing its sustainability report and my pick for the most creative innovation in this one is a 16-photo Day in the Life of a Factory Auditor, showing the process of an experienced environmental health and safety auditor and how she goes about her two-day audit. Great creativity for a Sustainability Report. 
HP auditors at work in China
This report will not fail to impress you with its creative design which contains illustrations from the Atlas des îles perdues, an artwork by Marie Velardi. "The Atlas depicts islands that could one day sink into the ocean due to rising sea levels caused by climate change. It is a clear illustration of the vital role of mitigating the negative impacts of Kuoni’s operations on the environment while at the same time enhancing the benefits of its actions at the destinations for now and the future. "
One of the lost islands from Kuoni's report
Created entirely in black and while, with pencil illustrations - aha! no photos at all in this report- and large white spaces and full page section introductions with quotable quotes, this report is certainly a uniquely styled presentation and well worth a look.

Quotable section heads from Kuoni Travel Holdings

The report also contains "webcodes". By inserting the webcode on the company's website, you can navigate directly to points of specific interest. A thoughtful report focusing on serious aspects of sustainability in the tourism industry in a striking way.

Universities have a major role to play in sustainability and La Trobe University’s inaugural sustainability report is one of only a few universities worldwide that have reported in accordance with the GRI framework and, La Trobe claims, is the world’s first university sustainability report to be externally assured to AA1000 standards. This is one of the few reports I have seen that has responded adequately to GRI LA14 indicator by providing a ratio for male: female pay and confirming a gender gap. We all know that women are paid less than men for same work in almost every industry but somehow, thousands of sustainability reports don't disclose on this issue or simply spurt equality policy. La Trobe's approach  is very creative - they admit they have an issue.

LA Trobe- it's so honest, it's creative

This is the only company in this category to call their report an Accountability Report. The creative difference in this report is the link to the corporate brand - at Loyalty One everything is one. One responsibility, one environment, one community, one culture. You get the picture. The report is called One Step Further.
Microsoft's report (81 pages) is creativity in its simplicity. The report is structured section by section in four parts: Challenges, Opportunities, What we're doing, What's next. This is supplemented by "Spotlights" on specific issues and "Viewpoints" from external stakeholders. Pleasant visuals. Clean. Neat. Get's the job done. That's creative.

National Grid plc Social Purpose Report 2010 (GRI Undeclared)
This 38 page report is made up of full page images representing 26% of the report content, plus other visuals throughout the narrative pages. Someone at the National Grid is obviously very camera-happy. It's a first report so that's always something special. Focusing on social purpose (Our job is to connect people to the energy they use, safely and reliably) is a good way to express the sustainability motivations of this company. This is how it looks without words:

Creativity in connecting energy to people from the National Grid

Newalta Corp. Sustainability 2011 (Not GRI)
This is a 29 page report, the Company's second. But you don't have to take my word for it. You can take advantage of this company's creative innovation by checking it out via their QR code.

QR straight to Newalta

Qualcomm 2010 Social Responsibility Report (GRI B+)
This 103 page download is an export of the online report website and is called Sending a Strong Signal: Stepping up, reaching out and making responsibility quintessentially Qualcomm. Any Sustainability Report which has a 16-letter word in the report title has to be a candidate for a creativity award. 

Royal Dutch Shell plc Sustainability Report 2010 (GRI A+)
Not many companies have 10 years of sustainability data to boast of. Shell does. They present this data in a fascinating chart. Getting 30 different metrics year by year for 10 years onto one page is creative. And impressive.

10 years of sustainability data at Shell

Teck Resources Ltd Sustainability Report 2011 (GRI A+)
Some companies go totally overboard with photos and design in sustainability reporting. Teck doesn't. This 96 page report has three photos, and one is the cover page. The rest is mainly narrative with some charts, with the exception of a nice visual showing the cycle of mineral use in a sustainable society.

Camping out after mine closure at Teck
Teck Resources' report is very detailed and includes fascinating case studies. One of my favorites is how Sphinx Creek watershed was turned into a thriving habitat for rainbow and bull trout follwing reclamation of a mined pit.

The Coca-Cola Company 2009/2010 Sustainability Review (GRI undeclared)
Coca Cola contains a lot of water, but you knew that. This report includes the water footprint of beet sugar as part of Coca-Cola's sustainable agriculture initiative. We have come a long way when downstream companies are disclosing such detail about upstream impacts. I haven't seen too many companies disclosing water footprints of single raw materials to date. I am sure we will see more. This is a differentiating factor in the Coca-Cola Company's report.
Coca-Cola's sustainable agriculture initiative

The Walt Disney Company Corporate Citizenship Report 2010 (GRI undeclared)
The Disney report is a journey into the wondrous and magical world of wholesome and fun entertainment. The report contains many case studies about ways in which Disney uses the power of entertainment to advance sustainable lifestyles and improve environmental impacts. The World of Color, for example, is a water-conserving nighttime attraction. Looks pretty creative to me!

A sustainable water attraction from The Walt Disney Company
This 81 page report has a great design and invites the reader to get stuck in. Use of infographics to introduce sections help to focus reader interest. But by far the biggest aspect of creativity has to be:

Women get to high places at Waggener Edstrom
Any company with over 60% of VP level-and-above execs who are women just has to be great at creativity.

And one more
So these are 24 examples of creativity in Sustainability Reporting. But I promised 25. Ah, well, you see, the remaining report in the Creativity in Communications category is my very own company's report - Beyond Business Sustainability Report 2010 - How a little consulting firm makes a BIG impact (GRI A). So, now that you know that my report is a contender, in competition with all these other creative reports, you can judge my comments accordingly. But I also invite you to take a look at my report and check out how mindbogglingly creative we have been. And if you would like to vote for the Beyond Business Sustainability Report, it would make me as happy as a very large helping of my favorite ice cream.

In any event, I urge you to reward this bunch of great reporters and use your five votes in this category to acknowledge those you think lead the pack in creativity. Vote NOW (or until 21st January) here.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via  on Twitter or via my business website  (BeyondBusiness, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Making Reporting Relevant: Two sustainability databases

As businesses become more transparent, so databases populated with the information that businesses now disclose are becoming more sophisticated and opening up wondrous possibilities for discovery, comparison, benchmarking and all sorts of interesting facts and figures compilations. Hot off the press is the new GRI Database of Sustainability Reports, which is a repository of over 7,600 sustainability and integrated reports (GRI-based and non-GRI-based) which is searchable and offers possibilities for interesting benchmarking options. Another fascinating data base which drills right down to source ESG data, sector by sector, is the new Justmeans Insights platform which is a data visualization and performance dashboard. (see the Press Release here). 

The new GRI Sustainability Report Database is the product of several years work and broad collaboration with the GRI Data Consortium  (my company, Beyond Business is the Data Consortium Partner for Israel). It is still in pilot phase, but is looking pretty good. The Database site was launched officially this week with a press release  and a launch webinar which you can view here (Webex recording). Many bloggers have already rushed to report on the key features of this new database, such as Raz Godelnik on Triple Pundit, and Environmental Leader and Sustainable Planet. Here is an extract from the GRI Press release:

"The new Sustainability Disclosure Database includes data on the sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG) transparency of over three thousand companies worldwide. Sustainability performance data is increasingly important to markets worldwide. In 1975, on average 80 percent of a company’s value came from tangible capital – finances and assets. Today, on average 80 percent of a company’s value is intangible – for example customer trust, brand value and stakeholder relations. The database is a hub for sustainability disclosure, featuring sustainability reports that use the GRI Guidelines and those that follow other guidance. The database includes references to sustainability guidance from different organizations, including the Carbon Disclosure Project, ISO, the OECD and the UN Global Compact. GRI plans to expand the scope and depth of its data collection and analytical functionality over time."

The GRI Reports Database

Here is an example of what you can do with the GRI database:

First, you can take an interest in the latest published reports or those which have been featured in the GRI communications service

Alternatively, using the search function, you can search for any report by organization name, report type, publication year, sector, region or country. Each organization and each report has its own profile page. This is currently still being populated (largely dependent on reporting companies completing their own data via own access), but most of the reports are already available to view. However, the benchmarking is where it has the potential to get most interesting ... so far, in the benchmark, only reports published since Jan 1st, 2011 AND which have been checked by the GRI as conforming with the GRI Application levels are included in the benchmark option - that's around 100 reports to date .. so a meaningful benchmark is still a little premature. However, as more reports are included, this could become quite useful. To give you an idea, I looked at 2 sectors which have a more than just a couple of reports : the Chemicals sector (5 reports) and the Energy sector (10 reports).

This chart shows that the Chemicals Sector reports are way ahead in reporting against more performance indicators. To make this clearer, 80% or more of companies report against 78% of the EC indicators, 73% of the EN indicators and only 21% of the LA indicators and so on. In the Energy Sector, overall reporting by most companies is much lower, showing that 80% or more of companies report against 22% of EC indicators, 23% of EN indicators but much more against LA indicators with 43%. What is it about the Chemical Sector that causes a dip in Labor Indicators, and the Energy Sector which makes that set of indicators more relevant? The GRI Database won't tell us that but it does allow reporters and report-readers to gain new insights and consider interesting questionsabout how companies report.

This basic analysis of just a small sample of the database took quite a lot of manual calculation. The data cannot be exported so analysis is manual. However, for companies looking to benchmark their sector, or country or region to see who is reporting what, the database could provide a very useful guide (once it is more fully populated). Companies wishing to do a deep-dive analysis can go back to the source reports for each indicator and check on who said what. 

Useful Now but More Useful in the Future

The benchmarking database does have its limitations. It doesn't show actual performance data nor assess the quality of the disclosures against any indicator and despite the GRI Application Level Check, there remain great discrepancies in reporting quality, as we all know. The linkage of the benchmark data doesn't easily hook back to the level of the reports themselves - to know if the benchmarked group reported at GRI Level A, B or C requires going back to each of the individual report profiles in the benchmark and checking that out individually.  

Therefore, in the initial stages, until more functionality is added, the main advantage of the database is the growing collection of reports in one place and a basic overview of what companies are reporting on most frequently. This has been a massive undertaking and congrats! to the GRI for coming so far. This is a database to watch in the coming months. I am sure it will become more relevant as it matures.

Justmeans Insights Platform - Another Layer of Transparency

The other database that is worth watching takes transparency a step further. Data Visualization from the Justmeans platform is quite spectacular. Take a look at this blog post by Harry Stevens to get an impression of what the platform can do. The Insights platform uses data collected by the CRD Analytics Global 1000 Smartview (R) 360 methodology (which powers the Nasdaq OMX Sustainability Index) for sustainability reporting companies with market capitalization of at least $1 billion. Insights makes a wide range of performance data available sector by sector, in comparable form with instant graphic visualization. So far, three sectors are available (Pharma, Computers and Peripherals and Semiconductors) and over time, more sectors will be added. This presupposes that analysis by sector is the way to go and there is some merit in comparing apples with apples, or in the case of the Pharma industry, drugs with drugs.

How Do Pharma Companies Compare?

There are 24 companies in the Pharma database, with Allergen shooting up to first place from seventh place in 2009, edging out Novartis from the top spot (now ranked 6).

Looking at the indirect energy consumption of 4 companies in this database, the figures show that in 2010, Merck actually used more total indirect energy that the other benchmarked companies, overtaking GlaxoSmithKline by a short measure.

Converting this to an intensity measure, gigajoules per $US million revenue, we get different picture. Merck and Glaxo are about equal in indirect energy intensity, while Allergen, who ranks number one overall in ESG performance, shows much higher in energy intensity, exceeding the much larger company, Roche.

Roche, Glaxo and Merck are all similar in terms of revenue size ($40-50 billion) while Allergen is much smaller with $US 5 billion.

Instant Relevant Benchmarking

This is a fascinating and instantly useful compilation of ESG data in a way which enables the perspective and context of relative performance accross different companies. Absolute energy consumption is affected by so many things beyond internal processes - size of production facilities, acquisitions, growth in production etc. - though ultimately, it's absolute measures which make a difference to the sustainability of the planet. By looking at absolute figures, you can see how companies' impacts have changed over time. In the first chart above, for example, data shows that Glaxo has been slightly reducing consumption year on year while Merck took a big jump from 2008 to 2010 (probably due to acquisition of Schering Plough). The other data you can pick up is which companies are not reporting on certain ESG indicators- which also tells a story.  The intensity comparison gives the picture of where companies are in their peer group - I selected to include only 4 companies in the charts above - but it is possible to benchmark all or any selection of the 24 companies in the sector for every single performance indicator. ESG areas covered include environmental, social (workforce, human rights etc.) and governance data. 

Making Reporting Relevant

Taken together, the GRI Reporting Database (free) and the Justmeans Insights Dashboard (subscription) are a major step forward in our ability to make sense of the much broader sustainability transparency that we are experiencing these days. The KPMG 2011 Reporting Survey, published to coincide with the database release,  confirms that sustainability reporting has become  the "de facto law" with 95% of the G250 now reporting. Reporting quality aside, GRI and Justmeans are now offering tools to help us make sense of it all. And when it makes sense, it will be much, much more relevant.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices Contact me via  on Twitter or via my business website  (BeyondBusiness, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dr Sustainability is back. Again.

Every so often, Dr Sustainability pays me a visit. Her last visit was many months ago, which is not surprising as she is a real globetrotter, flitting from C-suite to C-Suite, educating and inspiring executives about all aspects of sustainability. Once again, Dr Sustainability answers the CSR Reporting Blog's readers' questions in her inimitable way, sharing pearls of wisdom that will benefit our grandchildren's grandchildren and their great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren. Here goes: 

Dear Dr Sustainability: Would you say that sustainability is a trend or is it here to stay?
Dear Trendy: I would say that it is a trend that is here to stay.

Dear Dr Sustainability: I really can't decide what to call my next Sustainability Report. My reporting team says it should be called "Sustainability Report" but I think that's too drab. I would rather call it: "Enhancing our Reputation while Reducing our Marketing Budget". What do you think?
Dear Reporter: In my experience, the name of your sustainability report is crucial. First impressions are important. Saving money on marketing is certainly an attractive proposition but why give your competition the heads up? Call it "Sustainability Report". That will fool everyone!

Dear Dr Sustainability: I was trying to complete the G4 survey for the revision of the GRI Reporting Framework but the questionnaire is very long. I found myself wondering that, by the time I complete the G4 survey, they will already be on to G5. Do you think that's a risk?
Dear Survey-freak: I understand this could be a problem but if you try to type with two fingers instead of one, it might just go a little faster. And look on the bright side. When G5 comes around, you won't have to add your input all over again.

Dear Dr Sustainability: I really wanted to attend the BSR conference this year but, due to budget limitations, I had to content myself with reading the session summaries and following tweets. The problem is that all the tweets seemed to be about Ofra Strauss. Do you think it's fair that one person should dominate a whole conference ?
Dear Jealous: Honey, if you think life is fair, it's not the BSR conference you should be attending. I suggest you try the 2nd Bergen Conference on the treatment of psychopathy.

Dear Dr Sustainability: Can you please help? What does IIRC stand for?
Dear Puzzled: Utopia

Dear Dr Sustainability: My company is starting a new sustainability program to reduce energy consumption while travelling to work. It is now prohibited to turn on the air conditioning in the car while driving. I think I will just stop taking my car to work and use my bicycle instead. Do you think this would be a problem?
Dear Air-conditioned: Of course this would be a problem. Do you want to clog up our cities with bike congestion? Do you want to have car manufacturers go out of business? Do you want to injure your knees while cycling and cause our medical insurance to sky-rocket? Cycling to work is an idea whose time has not come. My advice would be to buy a Nano car - they have Nano air-conditioning. It's the next best thing to cycling.

Dear Dr Sustainability: My boss says that sustainability reports are going out of fashion and the latest fad is to produce quarterly disclosures and post them on our website. Do you agree?
Dear Follower-of-fashion: A fad is a fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period of time. I hardly think quarterly disclosures could yet be termed a fad. It's the great enthusiasm part that gives it away. Tell your boss that if he is looking to be fashionable, I hear Burberry is making a comeback. 

Dear Dr Sustainability: My 9 year old son has threatened to sue me if I don't use recycled washing powder to do the household laundry. I have checked at all the supermarkets in our town and I can't find biodegradable washing powder. Can you please advise?
Dear Parent: Tell you son to get a group of friends together and turn it into a class action. That way you can form a parents' support group and you won't feel so alone as you stand trial. 

Dear Dr Sustainablility: My cousin works as a Chief Executive on Wall Street and all the people campaigning in OccupyWallStreet are giving him one big headache. He told me that he won't get a bonus next year and he and his family have cancelled their vacation (Luxury Safari in Tanzania). I think it is right to campaign for greater economic equality, but why affect the lives of innocent people? Isn't there a way to reform Wall Street without affecting my cousin's bonus?

Dear Cousin: This is a very interesting point. Just think of the poor people in Tanzania whose tourist trade has plummeted due to cancelled vacations. How fair is that ? Perhaps you could use some sidewalk chalk to voice your opinion. Sidewalk chalk is the new Twitter. Perhaps you could invent a new hashtag: #owsbutleavebonusesalone. In any event, it's probably time to tell your cousin that his bonus is probably not the only thing that is going to be affected. It about time he started thinking of selling his yacht.

Dear Dr Sustainability: People are always making jokes about sustainability. It's as though sustainability weren't the most serious challenge mankind has ever had to face. It's as though we wouldn't all perish due to reckless consumption, raging poverty, mindless abuse of human rights, chronic water scarcity and lack of women in Boardrooms. How can I convince people that sustainability IS a serious issue?
Dear Joker: Put more women in Boardrooms

Thanks, Dr Sustainability for your awesome insights. Come back again soon. And bring ice cream.    

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via  on Twitter or via my business website
   (BeyondBusiness, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

16 Tips for Reading Sustainability Reports

By now, you all know how I love reading sustainability reports. The sheer variety of approaches to reporting, content, presentation, design, quality and creativity  is as great as the number of companies which report. Sustainability reporting has become a true differentiator and not only because of a report's existence (which is now, for the larger companies at least, is at "license to operate" level) but also because of the way a company reports.

A while back (in 2009), I posted tips on How to Read Sustainability Reports , and these remain valid today. A quick refresher:
  • Start with an open mind : don't let prior impressions of the company color an open-minded impression of the report content.
  • People write reports, not companies : remember that people are always doing their best.
  • Read the opening remarks by the Big Chief : the CEO sets the tone for what's in the report.
  • Choose how you read : decide if you want to read bestseller-style or pickn'mix.
  • Seek materiality : check out if the company has reported on the most important issues.
  • Be copy-paste and delete aware : how much info is fresh.
  • Look for consistency (and inconsistency) in data : does it all add up?
  • Give feedback, ask questions, make comments, get engaged : help them make it better.
  • Give some leeway to first timers : the first is always the toughest.
  • Always eat ice cream when reading reports : OK, I didn't say this, but I meant it.
These days, I am reading and reviewing more reports than ever, and getting more feedback than ever from companies whose reports I review. Last month, I started writing an exclusive series of in-depth report reviews for the Sustainable Business Forum under the title: Reporting: how they do it. In this series, I go beyond a short overview and go for the jugular, aiming to bring out the best and less-best practices of a range of corporate sustainability reports while opening up some avenues for further exploration. It's easy to make a bad report good. It's less easy to make a great report outstanding. So, in addition to the 10 tips above, I will add some new ones, based on experiences of writing the How They Do It series:

Don't be fooled by diagrams, tables, images and charts : In my review of Showa Denko Group's 2011 CSR Report, I was challenged to find enough data of substance that would justify the presence of a host of charts and diagrams which give the impression of a highly structured approach to CSR. In the same way as this report claims to have "referenced" ISO26000 and other guidelines, without ever referring to them in the body of the report, I found that diagrams and charts were graphically interesting but left me wondering where the true data is hidden.

Follow the tough issues : Companies which report on how they are approaching sticky challenges, rather than just doing nice things, gain in credibility. In my review of Merck's 2010 Sustainability Report, I make the point that the company underwent a 17% downsizing following a merger with Schering Plough. This represents thousands of people which were laid off. While we can debate the responsibility of business in job creation, rather than job elimination, what is more important is the way a company manages downsizing. I would have expected to read quite a lot in the Merck report about this tough issue which I suspect took up significant amounts of management time in the reporting period, and affected the entire organization and external communities. Absence of disclosure begs questions and reduces credibility.

Examine how companies are setting targets : Sometimes targets can seem extremely challenging but when you take a look at the fine print, you realize that they may be less impressive than you thought. This is one point I mentioned in my review of Procter and Gamble's 2010 Sustainability Report.  The company has a target to increase the proportion of Sustainable Innovation Products, having sold $40 billion of same during the past 3 years. Reading the fine print, I noticed that Sustainable Innovation Products fit the bill if they meet a 10% improvement in just one design parameter from a selection of energy, water, transportation, amount of material used and renewable energy or materials. Overall, such Sustainable Innovation Products appear to be a very low percentage of P&G's total sales, and a 10% improvement on one parameter per product seems to me to be rather a soft target. Sustainable Innovation sounds much more impressive than the fine print.

If a report wins an award, perhaps it deserves it : While there are many different approaches to reporting awards, and many ways to evaluate the quality of reports, perhaps those reports which actually surface to win a Reporting Award do deserve it. Such was my experience when reading and reviewing the De Beers 2010 Sustainability Report  which recently won the ACCA South Africa Reporting Awards. In fact, I decided to review that report precisely because it won the award (wouldn't we all like to know the winning formula?). Without knowing which other reports were also-rans, I did find the De Beers report impressive on many counts and worthy of recognition. Maybe the Wisdom of Crowds (thanks, James) really does work.

Look at what a company is doing for its people: One of the things I found most impressive in my review of the Ferrero 2010 CSR Report was a strong heritage of family values which infuses the corporate culture in a way which respects and cares for people including a large group of retirees. Sustainability begins at home and rests on embedding a culture which supports employees becoming champions of sustainability actions and ambassadors of sustainability messages. If this doesn't happen, sustainability simply doesn't gel. Companies which devote energy to reporting extensively on sustainability-minded employee practices are ones which are apparently doing it right.  

Check for impact :  It's not enough to define material issues and not enough to describe what actions a company is taking to improve its own sustainability and that of the planet. A sustainability report should be about impacts, not just about actions. You are probably tired of hearing me say this. Almost all the reports I read and review are totally disproportionate in the amount of space used to recount activities versus space assigned to describing impacts. Almost all of them leave us guessing as to how a range of noble actions actually made a difference. This is not surprising. Assessing sustainability impact is not a task for the faint-hearted, and there is no single methodology that takes precedence. However, reporting is, in general, getting more professional and the better reporters are moving to a higher plane where stakeholder engagement, materiality analysis and impact evaluation are gaining ground. In my next piece in the Reporting: How They Do It series, I give an example of a truly excellent company with a strong report which covers a vast range of company activities in meticulous detail and with great authenticity, but falls short of describing impacts in most areas. Which company? Ha-Ha. Check back next week! 

I daresay the above list of 16 tips is still not exhaustive. Reading sustainability reports does have its pitfalls (mainly because writing them has its pitfalls). However, every single report has value and careful reading both on and between the lines, combined with a healthy level of optimism, skepticism, criticism and icecreamism should help good reporters get better and better reporters get great :)    

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via  on Twitter or via my business website  (BeyondBusiness, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)
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