Monsanto’s 2015 Sustainability Report, released this month, is everything one would expect to see in a corporate sustainability report. It has goals. It has highlights of past accomplishments. It reflects Monsanto’s considerable knowledge and research of the planet’s endangered water systems, food and climate risks.
And to those ends, the report goes far beyond some companies’ self-examination of CSR objectives and accomplishments. It addresses the need for corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the need for accountability that is driving business today. In 2015, Monsanto did this by a variety of means that, in and of themselves, provide leadership:
- It cut its greenhouse gas emissions through “crop protection” operations by 16 percent of its 2020 goal.
- It reached just under 9 percent of its 2020 goal to reduce water use in its irrigation projects.
- It educated farmers on how to efficiently use nutrients and, according to the company, helped to “curb greenhouse gas emissions on 1 million acres in the United States,” attaining 20 percent of its goal.
- It increased production of its four main crops — corn, soya, cotton and canola — by 13 to 37 percent since 2000.
- And in December 2015, made a decision to neutralize its carbon footprint by 2021.
Of course, that’s just a shortlist of the things the company has highlighted in its priorities.
Still, the question that is often asked with CSR reports — and would certainly appear to apply here — is: Does it go far enough?
Is an 8.75 percent reduction in water expenditure sufficient for an industry that has built its commerce around global water availability? Has it developed ways to replace flood irrigation in soy and other fields with drip methods as companies in places like Israel have? (Monsanto indicated in its 2013 report that it is helping farmers to transition to more effective models, such as drip irrigation, particularly in wheat irrigation.)
Is 25 percent — the original 2020 goal for reducing water usage — going to meet the planet’s needs in light of climate change?
Monsanto’s success in meeting 73 percent of its goal to eradicate 20 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions is laudable. But does that perhaps mean it can do more?
And has it addressed the issues that communities have identified over the past few years? Has it taken on consumer concerns adequately enough to guarantee that their rights are protected and supported by laws and new legislation?
In the past three years, Monsanto has dedicated more than $20 million to defeat GMO-labeling bills in the U.S. In each of the past eight years, it has consistently outspent all other agribusiness entities in political spending. Yet these efforts seem to be in stark contrast to what surveys and polls consistently show consumers want. More than 90 percent of those polled in have said they want GMO products labeled and oppose efforts to limit that transparency. No doubt Monsanto would agree: A huge part of being a responsible company is listening to and supporting its customer base, including the consumers its B2B commerce benefits from.
And of course, another aspect is addressing and supporting resilient communities. Since at least 2015, four cities — San Jose, California, Seattle and Spokane, Washington, and South Wales, U.K. — have taken legal action against Monsanto for pollution of waterways and property from chemicals the company is alleged to have discharged when it dealt in chemical manufacturing.
Although Monsanto has told at least one U.S. litigant that it “is not responsible for the costs alleged in this matter,” the company agreed to contribute to cleanup in Wales where chemicals were dumped during that same time-frame. Will Monsanto take steps to dialogue with and meet the environmental needs of U.S. cities as they work to meet the guidelines of the Clean Water Act?
Corporate social responsibility reports have become a platform to show the goodness of a company’s actions and intentions. At a time when we are facing the impacts of global warming, however, these reports have also become a gauge by which consumers critique how a company’s goals measure up against the risks they and their communities are facing.
If Monsanto wants to hear real applause to its accomplishments, aggressively addressing those things that really hit home for local communities, like controversial legal rights, pollution eradication and water security, would reinforce the value and the message of its next sustainability report. It will be interesting to see how the rest of 2016 shapes up.