Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a challenge for any company, even for one that has been leading on that front for a while. For an organization almost two centuries old, embracing sustainability while turning its business model around on a time brings challenges and opportunities.
For 190 years The Guardian has been one of the most widely read and quoted newspapers in the United Kingdom and around the English-speaking world. Founded by a band of rogue textile businessmen in 1821, what has evolved into Guardian News & Media (GNM) includes the Sunday Observer and a massive web property that as of March 2011 lands on 2.7 million internet browsers and counting on a daily basis.
Like other media companies, GNM has had its struggles with its transformation from a print daily to an online powerhouse. To that end, GNM will soon release its 2011 sustainability (or CSR) report, the findings of which were released in several articles on its Living Our Values portal.
While print readership is in decline, old habits for some readers die hard, and GNM is in the difficult position of expanding its already successful web presence, transforming its print editions, and staying profitable: the company lost US$52.7 million (33 million GBP) last fiscal year. A redesign of The Guardian’s weekday print issues are in order as more readers look to the web, not paper. Meanwhile, GNM and its parent owner, the Scott Trust, are diverting more resources to its successful online presence, which is rich in content on just about every imaginable subject including theater, business, travel, inter-generational family relationships, the Balkans, global drought, and pensions. And with a 43 percent increase in web viewership, GNM has moved towards a digital-first policy.
In order to provide that enormous array of content, GNM’s management realizes that it has to address the company’s long term sustainability in order to remain a leading voice of, yes, environmental and social sustainability. Every aspect of operations, from data centers to print sites to editorial offices, meets what GNM describes as the highest editorial standards possible. Rather than aim for a carbon-neutral business throughout its operations, GNM’s vision is to be carbon positive. The company has an overall sustainability strategy that has three core areas: developing commercial sustainability, reducing the company’s net impacts, and act as a change for good throughout the entire organization.
How is GNM’s management pushing the organization to embrace even more change? The company revamped its materiality assessment process, moving beyond its editorial policy of emphasizing sustainability issues. A cross functional team of internal employees and external consultants reached out to engage staff in non-editorial departments. Meanwhile a network of departmental advocates meet monthly to assess their progress, which the UK sustainability advisory firm Two Tomorrows verifies and audits.
In sum The Guardian strives to practice what its writers aggressively report:
What our sustainability reporting seeks to do, therefore, is take our stakeholders behind the scenes of our editorial coverage as well to open up the commercial and operational parts of the business that are often hidden from view. We believe that if we are to have integrity in what we write, we need to be able to demonstrate that we meet the standards we set others and ourselves.
The approach that The Guardian takes towards both CSR reporting and stakeholder engagement is one other companies should consider: release a series of articles that describe the successes and challenges the organization faces, and pique interest before the final report is released. Obviously GNM has this process defined as it is the company’s job to create content. Nevertheless, this very frank and conversational approach is a wise one to emulate.