Should We Start Saying “Beyond Shell” ?

After a long record of safety violations, questionable labor practices, and not to mention a gushing deep sea well that has flowed without mercy for two months, we all know how genuine BP’s green marketing campaign panned out.  Nevertheless, Shell is moving fast to usurp BP’s role as an energy company quick to tout how “green” their business has become.

Shell is naming this latest marketing ploy the “Let’s Go” campaign, positioning Shell as an energy company instead of an oil exploration and production firm.  On paper, the Netherland’s-based oil behemoth meticulously follows the sustainability guidelines set by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and UN Global Compact. Shell was at GRI’s Amsterdam conference last month, giving away boxes of its 2009 Sustainability Report.

Shell touts the following highlights on its environmental, social, and labor initiatives:

  • Shell is becoming the world’s largest natural gas producer, which the company claims can operate power plants with 70% less CO2 than coal plants while running 40% more efficiently.  By 2012, the firm will produce more natural gas than oil.
  • Its direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from all facilities were 11% lower than in 2008 and 35% its 1990 levels, putting the firm on target to meet its voluntary 2010 target for 5% lower GHG emissions than 1990 levels.
  • The company’s new technology center in Amsterdam is “almost” CO2-neutral, though a definition of “almost” is not disclosed.  All of Shell’s new buildings, however, must be at least LEED-Silver certified.
  • Shell received CA$865 million from the Alberta and Canadian governments for a carbon-capture-and-storage facility in northern Alberta that will mitigate the effects of its oil sands projects.
  • Operational spills were at an all-time low of 1300 tons—though it dealt with 14,000 tons of spillage in Nigeria, which Shell blames on sabotage.  Others describe this as blaming the victim.
  • Annual water use is down by almost 12% from 2008, and Shell is using recycled water at its refinery in the drought-stricken state of Victoria, Australia.

The sustainability report is well-written, full of text instead of pretty pictures.  But examining the report’s pages, one finds that the report is full of feel-good stories, rather than addressing issues and criticism the company has faced, from Nigeria to Canada to Ireland.  Another concern are the testimonials that academics and NGO directors offer:  what is the relationship that they have with Shell and why would they speak glowingly of Shell’s efforts?

In fairness, Shell lists graphs and charts disclosing data ranging from GHG emissions to employee fatalities to social investment (which fell from 2008 to 2009).  A discerning reader may want to skip the pages and pages of disclosures, read the data, and determine whether Shell’s sustainability disclosures reveal complete transparency or a simple ticking off a check list.

Of course, you should always read the fine print.  Those who want a more thorough examination of Shell’s business need to download the annual report that it files with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.  At the corner of page 37, Shell reveals that it “may have used certain terms in this publication that SEC’s guidelines strictly prohibit us from including in filings with the SEC.”  Could this be another reason why integrated reporting should become the standard?

If reading Shell’s sustainability reports gives you the sense that the world’s largest company by revenue in 2009 expresses some discomfort in its financial and sustainability reports, you would never guess that by its “Let’s Go” campaign.  Here is one of the many television advertisements that it is broadcasting around the world (I thought it was a promotion to visit Rio!).  So do you think Shell is a genuinely concerned with its effect on people and the planet?  Share your thoughts.

[Ed note: click here for more information about 3p’s certification in GRI sustainability reporting]

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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