Wednesday, August 12, 2009

CSR reports. Read or recycle ?

A short while ago, @Timberland_Jeff tweeted: "Does anyone really read Corp CSR reports? Steelcase's 2009 report is very impressive: "

Let's leave Steelcase out of this post for the time being and focus on the question: does anyone read CSR reports?

Oy! How many times have we all heard this question?
And how many times have we all heard the auto-pilot response: (altogether now>>.) no-one.
This is usually followed by a tirade of how irrelevant reports are, not worth the paper they are written on, how they do not fulfil their purpose, and how they are greenwash, whitewash, blackwash and hogwash, end up in the recycle bin (well, at least they are contributing to improve recycling targets).

Now why does this frustrate me so?

  • Because I am a naturally frustrated person ? (oops, let's not go there …)
  • Because I make a living (kinda) from writing reports ?
  • Because my hobby is reviewing reports for CorporateRegister ?
  • Because I am passionate about reporting (it takes all kinds, right ?)
  • Does it have something to do with Chunky Monkey? (haha! you saw that coming)
  • Or does it have something to do with the fact that I empirically, emphatically, especially, eternally, everlastingly, enthusiastically everso-everso believe that this (a) is untrue and (b) the wrong question. (sorry if I have understated this a little).

Who reads CSR reports?
(Clarification: Read includes reading part of the report not necessarily cover to cover – we aren't talking about Kathy Reichs, remember)

  • The people who write them – in 2008, according to Corporate Register stats page, 3,336 reports were published worldwide in 2008. This follows a year on year double digit increase almost every single year since 1992. If we assume that for each report, there are at least 50 people in the Company who participate in the reporting process and read the report prior to publication, then in 2008, around 170,000 people read reports
  • The people who assure them – in 2008, same stats source, around 28% of published reports were assured – and assuming only around 5 people on the assurance team for each report, another 5,000 people read reports
  • The report checker at the Global Reporting Initiative who checks the 40% or so of reports which are GRI based – lets count this as 1,500 reads.
  • The people who evaluate reports – there are many different services and raters of CSR reports. This includes The Roberts Environmental Center, excellent work done by Radley Yeldar here and here, the CSR report analysis by Sustainability Services in South Africa, sites such as and my fellow report reviewers at … lets assume that there are at least 5,000 people involved in this work in one form or another around the world in any given year
  • The people who vote for reports in the several reporting competitions, the most significant being the CRRA Awards which are included in the 26,000 registered report readers of
  • The people who tweet and retweet about reports …. I see a quite a few each week … let's assume they and their followers amount to 100 per week = 5,000 or so per year
  • The stakeholders – this is an unknown quantity of course, but we can safely assume that there is a certain percentage of directors, managers, employees, customers, suppliers, community partners, social and environmental activists, journalists, analysts, investors, students, csr consultants, family members of employees, mom's of the report writers etc read at least some of the content. I will assume a conservative 300 people per report – that makes an additional 1 million or so readers in 2008. In my experience, at least this number of people read reports, based on reports I have been involved in writing or assuring.
  • Me and my team – well, that's another half a dozen or so, depending on the month.
  • My husband – he reads everything I write. He has no choice. He wants dinner.
  • Me.

    So all in all, I conservatively estimate that, in 2008, 1,212,507 people read CSR reports. Is this a high number? Or is it a drop in the ocean. Consider it this way, 1.2+ million consumers, employees, activists, investors, analysts, journalists, managers, CSR professionals and members of the general public had an opportunity to gain new CSR insights. And maybe something good came out of some of those insights.

Therefore to say no-one reads CSR reports is W-R-O-N-G.
Or to put it another way. G-R-W-O-N.

Now here is the right question.

Even if we assumed that no-one reads CSR report, do they have value?
ONE: In order to write a report, even the most miserable of reports, with very little in the way of transparent, clear and progressive content, the organization needs to ask itself questions. In doing so, people need to get engaged with the context of corporate social responsibility and start thinking about organizational performance in a different way. These conversations and new thoughts lead to new possibilities for CSR actions by the business. They create a CSR momentum which builds up in the organization. The process of creating the report drives changes in strategy and performance. CSR reporting is a catalyst. This really really really does happen, from my personal experience, with every single Company I have worked with on CSR reporting. So whether or not people read the finished product, most of the benefit is gained by producing it.
TWO: The report forces a structure around csr performance review which does not take place in any other way in standard business, financial or organizational reporting frameworks. The report ensures a core body of data about the Company which supports target setting and tracking of data year on year. Often, the fact that the report requires some form of future promise is enough to drive the organization to commit to improvement targets. The fact that csr targets are stated in the report is a commitment for all external stakeholders to hook up to, and which the organization feels obliged, once having publicly declared its intention, to uphold.
THREE: The report is a management tool for monitoring and evaluating performance in a consistent way. It forces data flow processes in the organization. Some reports even include the names of managers responsible for actioning certain projects as a way of reinforcing engagement and commitment by those Managers.
THREE and a HALF: You will note I don't list all the other reasons reports have value – transparency as a goal in itself, reputation building, employee engagement, encouraging trust with stakeholders, setting standards for other companies etc. All these are valid. But there is little data to prove their efficacy.

A word about other ways of disclosing csr information – a report is one tool in a corporation's total spectrum of csr communications and should not be the only one – there are many fine examples of corporate transparency via websites, stakeholder dialogue calls a la Timberland, meetings, investor briefings, participation in csr conferences, interviews in newspapers, journals, magazines and participation in social media such as JustMeans and Development Crossing, Facebook, Twitter and more. A report is a snapshot of performance and we should avoid seeing it as the sole mouthpiece for CSR disclosures.

To sum up, if you didn't get it, people read csr reports and csr reports have value. That's it. People read csr reports and csr reports have value. I am not paranoid. People read csr reports and csr reports have value. Not convinced? Repeat after me. People read csr reports and csr reports have value. I' m just stating facts. Grit your teeth, take a walk in the sunshine, grab a Chunky Monkey and, if you are not one of the enlightened 1,212,507, reach out for the nearest report and take a look. You might just get addicted …..

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm . Visit our website at:


Anonymous said...

Hey Elaine, thanks for the shout out!

Ben at Radley Yeldar

elaine said...

hi ben, my pleasure, your analyses are outstanding... look forward to more :) elaine

Anonymous said...

Recycle. CSR reports are NOT read--nobody in the real world cares (ask yourself, when did you last see anybody outside the company with their nose in one? Ever?). Investors don't get beyond the cover. They are a stupefying waste of manpower, time, and, yes, resources--CSR reports are bad for the environment. If you must produce one, it should be five pages long max and consist mainly of tables with the names of the nasty chemicals your company spews out. Anything else is PR dressed up as social concern.

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