Who really reads CSR reports? Do investors really use them? I heard speakers from Intel, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Merck & Co., and CalSTRS offer differing answers to these questions during a panel on CSR reporting at the recent Financial Times Conference “Investing in a Sustainable Future.”
Merck’s Director of Corporate Responsibility Maggie Kohn seemed skeptical that CSR reports are reaching intended audiences. She cited a Corporate Register report which identified investors as the third largest group of readers (12 percent), behind fellow CSR reporters and consultants and service providers.
But others were more upbeat about the value that CSR reports deliver to certain stakeholders, a feeling shared by Mike Wallace, GRI Director of Sustainability Reporting Framework groups. Investors are becoming a more important report audience, in light of developments. Wallace cited growing evidence that investors are hungry for environment, health, and safety (ESG) metrics and GRI performance indicators. Financial information providers –- and CSR reports — are feeding that demand for ESG data.
This is the first column in a three-part series on CSR Reporting. Coming next — Part 2: What Investors Want from CSR Reports and Part 3: CSR Reporting: When is Enough, Enough?
At the recent Financial Times Conference, Investing in a Sustainable Future, GRI’s Mike Wallace admitted that he hears complaints about the GRI Framework. But, he also shared encouraging reports about its growing acceptance. Since he joined the Global Reporting Initiative as director of sustainability reporting framework in 2009, Wallace has devoted himself into understanding just how widely the GRI reporting framework has been adopted and listening to what users think about it.
So what’s new in the world of environmental, social and governance reporting? Here are some of the insights Wallace shared with conference participants:
- more customization available with the GRI framework,
- widening mandates for non-financial disclosures, and
- adoption beyond corporations.
More customization available
Some organizations that try to structure their environmental, social and governance reporting according the framework of performance indicators find that it can be a poor fit, with a number of the indicators irrelevant to their industry or country. But as the GRI continues to roll out industry sector supplements – 15 have been developed so far – those complaints should begin to subside.
The bi-partisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission has been studying no less than 22 contributing causes of the financial crisis. At the risk of oversimplifying matters, Jed Emerson of Blended Value Proposition, believes he knows the root cause. It all boils down to values, Emerson told participants at the Economist’s recent 2010 Corporate Citizenship Conference “Doing Well by Doing Good.”
“We experienced a bifurcation of values,” declared Emerson. “In much of our society, how you live life on Monday through Friday has become different from life on Saturday and Sunday.”
Rape, pillage and … philanthropy
The mentality in much of corporate America has become “rape, pillage and philanthropy,” quipped Emerson. Many executives and companies knowingly tolerate gross inconsistencies between destructive business practices and corporate philanthropy because they artificially disassociate these values. Putting your philanthropic arm in a silo can salve the conscience of those in the core business units who feel they can act with impunity because their company engages in “do good” endeavors completely detached from its day-to-day activities. That mentality misses the point, Emerson maintained.
Can taking an oath make corporate executives more ethical? Yes, according to some speakers at the Economist’s recent Corporate Citizenship Conference “Doing Well by Doing Good.” They hold that responsible citizenship at the corporate level starts with strong personal values.
Stanford University Law School Lecturer Chip Pitts told conference participants, “Society needs individuals who exhibit integrity and consistency in their behavior at their work place and their church, synagogue or non-profit organization.”
“This conversation starts with self,” echoed Jeff Swartz, President and CEO of Timberland. “By blaming CEOs and banks, we miss the opportunity to take personal accountability for our personal actions.”’
Oath of Honor
Economist US Business Editor and New York Bureau Chief Matt Bishop and other panelists pointed hopefully to the small but growing interest in a management oath among the nation’s business schools. In 2005, the Thunderbird School of Global Management adopted a professional Oath of Honor which is taken by students upon graduation. From the TBird website: “The oath was drafted by the student-run Thunderbird Honor Council after their president Dr. Angel Cabrera (also an Economist conference speaker) challenged the students to be the first business school to establish an oath that would guide them during their business careers.”
During the Economist’s Corporate Citizenship Conference earlier this week, I heard nearly three dozen global leaders discuss the challenges, successes and failures of corporate citizenship. From their comments, I gleaned a collection of best practices for developing corporate citizenship programs that generate tangible results. Here’s what these leaders recommend.
Collaborate with competitors. It’s not easy going eyeball-to-eyeball with gargantuan competitors such as Nike or Adidas, but Timberland sat down with other brands, tanners and suppliers in the Leather Working Group to develop an environmental audit protocol for leather tanners and suppliers. With this industry standard in place, shoe manufacturers can now require that their vendors adhere to certain environmental standards, according to Jeffrey Swartz, President and Chief Executive Officer of Timberland. That’s a powerful tool Timberland and other shoe manufacturers can use to drive environmental responsibility down the supply chain.
The Economist’s Corporate Citizenship Conference “Doing Well by Doing Good” wrapped up earlier last week and provided a variety of perspectives on what exactly needs to be done, how and by whom to restore our economy, corporate ethics and public trust. It was no surprise that the bleak economic situation was a recurring theme echoed by the speakers, but I was struck by the dichotomy of opinions, with some speakers expressing optimism, while others took a bleaker outlook on the economy and the role of corporate citizenship. One issue all the speakers did agree on was the need to replace failed policies, practices and attitudes, at societal, corporate and personal levels with a truly sustainable approach.
The Road from Ruin
Economist US Business Editor and New York Bureau Chief Matt Bishop kicked off the conference by pronouncing that the economic crisis offers the opportunity to reshape capitalism (no small feat). He admitted that he and The Economist have moved away from their belief that “The business of business is business,” a la Milton Friedman. Given the magnitude of the problems facing our world, Bishop maintains that it is imperative for organizations the size of today’s global corporations to step up to the plate.
How much of a role should business play in tackling global questions such as climate change, unemployment, restoring trust in the aftermath of the financial crisis and distributing international aid? What is the nature and extent of the private sector’s responsibility in resolving these issues? At what point should corporations step alongside government and help shoulder some of the burden? These questions, which go to the very heart of defining corporate citizenship and corporate social responsibility, are some of the issues that will be discussed at the Economist’s 2010 Corporate Citizenship Conference kicking off this week. In light of the financial crisis, this year’s convocation will rightfully explore restoring trust and increasing transparency in the financial markets and job creation, in addition to balance in international aid and post-Copenhagen strategies for moving forward.
The conference line-up features a veritable who’s who of big names in sustainability and leading thinkers from the public sector including: Diana Taylor managing director of Wolfensohn & Co. and former president of the World Bank; US Department of Labor deputy secretary Seth Harris; Loews Hotels chairman and CEO Jonathan M. Tisch; and Steve Case, co-founder of America Online and chairman and CEO of Revolution. A highlight will be a conversation with President Bill Clinton who will likely provide an update on the Clinton Global Initiative.
Giving Government a Helping Hand
How much of a role should business play in tackling global questions such as climate change, unemployment, restoring trust in the aftermath of the financial crisis and distributing international aid? What is the nature and extent of the private sector’s responsibility in resolving these issues? At what point should corporations step alongside government and help shoulder some of the burden? These questions, which go to the very heart of defining corporate citizenship and corporate social responsibility, are some of the issues that will be discussed at the Economist’s 2010 Corporate Citizenship Conference kicking off next week.
The conference line-up features a veritable who’s who of big names in sustainability and leading thinkers from the public sector including: Diana Taylor managing director of Wolfensohn & Co. and former president of the World Bank; US Department of Labor Deputy Secretary Seth Harris; Loews Hotels Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan M. Tisch; and Steve Case, co-founder of America Online and Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Revolution. A highlight will be a conversation with President Bill Clinton who will likely provide an update on the Clinton Global Initiative.
If one of your resolutions for the new year is to better utilize social media to tell your company’s sustainability stories, take a look at how Intel and Timberland are tapping the potential of the Web 2.0 In a recent webinar hosted by the National Association of Environmental Managers, these web-savvy CSR managers described how they’re integrating blogs, Twitter, and other social media into their overall sustainability communications strategies. And, they offered advice for social media beginners.
Intel’s CSR reporting has come a long way since 1994 when it published its first Environment, Health and Safety Report. For starters, it now publishes a full corporate responsibility report prepared according to the GRI reporting guidelines.
Some skeptics question the value of corporate social responsibility reports. They point to the resources expended on producing these documents and demand “Who reads them, anyway?” While that may be a valid question, I think a more informative question is “What value does producing a CSR report offer to the company doing the reporting?”
Based on my experience producing CSR reports, I have seen firsthand the positive impact that publishing a report can have on a company’s employees and performance management. So, I wasn’t too surprised when Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship’s new report, The Value of Social Reporting, found that “a social report, and the reporting process,” make CSR reports a “unique tool for promoting good corporate citizenship.”
Authors Belinda Richards and David Woods studied the evolution of social reporting at seven companies from a range of industries: Baxter International Inc., Gap, Nestle, Novo Nordisk, Seventh Generation, State Street and Telefonica. Their research focused not on the reports, but rather on the process and outcomes of reporting.
We’ve all seen them. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports weighing it at nearly 100 pages, crammed with charts and graphs, and gray with type. There’s valuable information in there, but unearthing commentary on issues of strategic importance can be daunting.
That’s why I was especially curious to hear CSR managers from two industry leaders, FedEx and Gap Inc., explain how they determine CSR report content in a presentation at the recent Net Impact 2009 Conference at Cornell University.
While both managers acknowledged the value of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework, they lamented its limitations. As a general framework designed to be used by all companies, the GRI calls for a plethora of data which might not be relevant to a particular company or could require addition of costly data-gathering processes. So, like many other companies, CSR reporting leaders FedEx and Gap Inc. also use corporate strategy and stakeholder input to determine which issues are material to readers.
Sustainability careers are in high demand, judging from the record-breaking attendance at the 2009 Net Impact Conference this past weekend (2,400 participants, 60% of which were MBA students). Problem is, there just aren’t that many full-time positions with “sustainability” or “corporate social responsibility” in the title. But, it is possible to create a full-time sustainability position where none exists, report three successful social intrapraneurs.
Do what you love. A self-described “soft-techy guy,” Accenture’s Mike Nicholus had a reputation of being able to deliver results in a global setting. He was also known as a tree-hugging guy who spouted phrases like “peak oil” and kept preying mantises around his home. After filling a variety of roles at Accenture and working closely with the CEO, Nicholus was tapped when the company decided to implement a work-at-home initiative.
Like most sustainability efforts, it paid off in several ways – substantial cost-savings for the firm, a reduced carbon footprint and workplace flexibility that employees crave. Now as director, global environment programs, Nicholus promotes programs to measure and manage Accenture’s environmental impact across operations in 49 countries. His strategy for selling “green” initiatives: “You need the ability to identify your key ‘buyers’ and make a sound business case for your proposal.”
Nicholus’ advice: Figure out how to do your day job in four days and spend the fifth day doing what you love. Then flavor the other four days with that.