What to Report on? How Two CSR Leaders Decide

fedex-logo-illusionGapWe’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. 

Catalog or Manifesto?   “We focus on the process of identifying material issues,” states Brandon Tidwell, global citizenship program advisor at FedEx, who helped produce the company’s 2008 Global Citizenship Report. “We wanted to define the story most important to FedEx and focus on that.  We wanted to share our goals, describe our vision and provide thought leadership.  We felt it was important to identify key industry issues, identify possible solutions and give readers an understanding of how we plan to tackle those issues.  We wanted a manifesto, not a catalog.”

Deciding that it was crucial to incorporate input from Investor Relations and allow overseas regions to culturize the content, FedEx pushed back its report production schedule to allow time for that. 

From compliance to capacity building — Gap has come a long way since 2002 when Calvert Investments filed a resolution asking it to develop monitoring standards for its vendors and report back to shareholders on matters regarding labor and human rights conditions.

Just three years later, Gap’s 2005 Social Responsibility Report won the Social Reporting Award in the Ceres-Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) Sustainability Awards competition. That year’s report focused on Gap’s programs to improve garment factory conditions around the world, including its factory approval process and factory monitoring protocols.

Last month the Boston College-Reputation Institute rated Gap among the top ten companies in its 2009 CSR Index,  a clear indication that stakeholders are now pleased with its CSR activities and reporting.

“Expectations of stakeholders play a key role in influencing report content,” noted Geoffrey Geist, strategy and communications manager for Gap Inc.  “In earlier reports, stakeholders wanted to learn about violations of factories.  Now stakeholders have shifted their focus from compliance to sustainability issues such as our capacity-building efforts.”

“We stay in touch with our stakeholders to keep in sync with what they expect in our reports.  But it’s not always easy to retool our systems for collecting the data that they expect to see,” Geist continued.

When Gap recently decided to eliminate some specialized data from its report, the editorial board alerted stakeholders in advance to their decision and explained their rationale.  Stakeholder response was “very positive,” said Geist.

 Finally, Geist noted that Gap works with social responsible investment funds and investment research companies to understand their concerns.  “SRI screening keeps Gap on the cutting edge of investor concerns,” said Geist. “Their screens are very effective in helping us know where we need to act.”

Cindy Mehallow is principal of CRM Communications, a woman-owned sustainability communications consulting practice specializing in corporate social responsibility reporting and stakeholder communications. GRI-Certified in sustainability reporting, Cindy has produced award-winning sustainability reports for Fortune 500 clients in a variety of industries.

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