Editor's Note: A version of this post originally appeared on CSR-Reporting.
In the world of sustainability, there are some names that evoke a range of strong emotions and reactions, and I suspect that BP is one of them. BP has had some extremely interesting sustainability successes, and also at least one devastating low point.
You don't even have to mention the company name: Just refer to the Gulf of Mexico, Macondo, Deepwater Horizon, I want my life back -- there are a million ways to say "BP," and most of them are not exactly positive. But if you stand back from the oil spill disaster of 2010, accept that we are still and will continue to be reliant on fossil fuels as our main source of energy for some time into the future, and take a look at what BP is doing today with a pair of fresh eyes, you may be encouragingly impressed. As I was.
I was doing my homework in preparation for a conversation with Louise Tyson, head of corporate reporting at BP (that's both financial and sustainability reporting). Louise will be sharing her insights on "giving your report complete clarity and readability" at the Smarter Sustainability Reporting Conference in London in February (still time to register). As usual, as the conference chair, I like to chat with speakers in the run-up to the conference. Ahead of our call, I navigated to BP's sustainability and reporting site after what I confess were several years of not paying close attention. I was pleasantly surprised.
BP is an employer of 83,000 people, a strong contributor to the global economy and a long-standing sustainability reporter addressing serious issues in detail in its reporting suite. BP has various reports and formats to meet different stakeholder information needs. This year's suite includes:
Elaine Cohen: How did you get into the reporting role at BP?
LT: Actually, my background is not in reporting. I was in magazine publishing for 10 years and then worked in online communications. I was a consultant to BP one year, putting their sustainability report online. That was my introduction to sustainability, around seven or eight years ago. BP later hired me as the sustainability reporting manager. My first report was published five days before the Gulf of Mexico incident.
EC: How did you move from sustainability reporting to corporate reporting?
LT: I realized that our financial and sustainability reporting often cover the same issues - such as climate change and human rights – and that we should be talking about them in the same voice, even if the reporting focus and purpose is different. So, when I was promoted to the head of corporate reporting role, I knew there was an opportunity to encourage more accessible language and consistency across all of our reporting. It's turned out to be a really interesting challenge. But if you had asked me if I had ever imagined that I would be doing what I am doing today, I'd probably never have guessed.
EC: How has BP's reporting changed over the years?
LT: For many years, BP was recognized as a leader in sustainability reporting. We would win reporting awards, and we were generally considered as innovative in our approach. After the Gulf of Mexico incident, things changed, of course. It became even more important that we report transparently, factually, credibly and in a balanced way – responding to the disappointment and anger of many of our stakeholders. It was very tough. We needed to provide a balanced view, clearly communicating what had happened and how we were responding. And, it was essential that our communication didn’t show up as green-washing. Over time, things have rebalanced somewhat, and now most of our stakeholders are asking us much the same questions that they would ask of any large oil and gas player.
EC: Your reporting is so detailed and includes a wide range of local and site-specific reports. How do you manage your reporting cycle?
LT: We launch our sustainability report in March, and we immediately begin on the next year’s report by getting feedback from external stakeholders on how they think we’ve covered the material issues. Over the summer, we work with representatives from our policy, risk, government and public affairs, and environmental and social teams, to pull together and prioritize a list of the most important topics. This is really powerful because it offers a broad perspective on the issues and where we are and what we should be doing. From September to December, we work on the report draft and present it to the board committee focused on sustainability issues. We then spend the first part of the year incorporating all feedback before publication.
EC: What's the policy on country reports?
LT: Country reports are developed locally by the local businesses. They decide whether they want to publish a local report. For some, it's extremely helpful as an engagement tool. We do not dictate a policy at corporate level, though we do provide a framework for local reporting, for those countries that adopt this practice. We provide positioning on group issues and other guidance. We also review the reports at corporate level before publication, to ensure there is alignment around common issues and approaches. Site reports can be very relevant to the detailed discussion at local level with local stakeholders. In general, countries and sites that report do so as a response to local demand and interest. In Azerbaijan and Angola, for example, we know this is helpful in maintaining positive relations with local institutions and government offices.
It's fascinating to see how advanced this BP report was for its time, and of course, compare it to the latest the 2013 review. They are both 52 to 53 pages in length, so that's one thing that hasn't changed. Surprisingly perhaps, given the dynamic evolution of reporting and the advances in reporting practice over the years, the pioneering 1998 report has many elements that are still very relevant today.
The 1998 report contains:
In the 1998 report, especially when compared to today's document, there is a sense of almost naive authenticity in a sort of clumsy but trust-building way. The 2013 report is far more polished, and while it is direct and balanced, I wonder if recapturing something of the early-day spirit might be an interesting thought for BP and other companies to enhance credibility. To give you a sense of this, here are a few "gems" from the 1998 report:
"Our success depends on our making, and being seen to make, a distinctive contribution to every activity in which we are involved."
"Ours is an evolving, rather than predetermined or overly bureaucratic, approach. We know that for high standards of ethical and social behaviour to thrive as part of our culture they must be felt and understood by our people. It is more important for it to be in the bloodstream than in a set of manuals."
"Diversity in internal teams (now the norm) is highly valued as it has been seen to result in more creative solutions."
"We wanted this year’s report to include more than just the ‘official’ views of the company."
"Questions of business ethics are often not clear-cut and cannot be resolved by rules alone. With this in mind, during 1998 we revised our Guidelines on Business Conduct, which provide guidance on ethical issues to anyone who has custodianship of the company’s assets or commercial relationships."
"To mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we launched a human rights page on our internet site..."
"Our social impacts can range from positive ones, such as the creation of jobs and prosperity, to less welcome ones, such as fueling unrealistic employment expectations, exacerbating existing or latent conflicts and disrupting settled ways of life."
Anyway, that nostalgic look at the early days of reporting has given me a new sense of respect for BP and its consistent, ongoing investment in transparency. This doesn't make BP perfect, and it doesn't mean that BP should not continue to be held accountable for its far-reaching impacts on society and the environment in all that it does. But, especially after my conversation with Louise Tyson, I am more ready to believe that there is earnest intention behind the written words.
Image credit: Flickr/Mike Mozart
Elaine Cohen is a CSR Consultant and Sustainability Reporter, founder/manager of <a href="http://www.b-yond.biz/" target="_blank">Beyond Business Ltd</a> and author of the <a href="http://www.csr-reporting.blogspot.com/" target="_blank">CSR Reporting Blog</a>