Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is your CSR Report an Optical Illusion?

One thing I learnt very early on in life is that "Things are not always what they seem" . This brief phrase is the basis for suspending judgment about people and situations. It's the basis for an open mind, acceptance of others, and the ability to take a (more) balanced view about many situations. Optical illusions , as in the LEGO photo (above), taken from a post  called "crazy optical illisions that will blow your mind" reinforce the fact that what we see is not always the truth. Optical illusions, quoting the above post, are "visually percieved images that differ from objective reality" .

So it is, from time to time, with CSR Reports. Sometimes, what you see is a poor reflection of a great Company who just hasn't learnt to communicate effectively all the fabulous and important sustainability stuff they are doing. Sometimes, what you see is a report which would have you believe that a company is doing great sustainability stuff when in fact, they are not.

I often use the phrase "Things are not always what they seem" when I am reading CSR Reports. I try to look behind the words written on the page or the website and get into the heads of the people that wrote the report. What were they trying to achieve with this report? Who were they trying to speak to? What constraints did they have to contend with in the writing process? Why did they choose to include this piece of content in this way? What is it important for them to project? What did they not report on? What did they really mean ? Are they trying to create an optical illusion with their report or are they close to objective reality?

Of course, it is not easy to answer these questions and the bottom line is that we all have to make our own judgement about the degree of "objective reality" presented in any report. I am reminded of an excellent review of the British American Tobacco Report of 2008 , written by my highly skilled sustainability-consulting colleage Michelle Bernhart . Whilst Michelle is quite positive about the overall quality of the report, she ends up her review with the question: "While BAT asks the obvious question about whether tobacco can even be sustainable, it fails to ask the other one lingering in our minds: can we actually trust anything this industry says?"

To round off, my plea, as ever, if for us to retain a sense of perspective when we read CSR reports. Let us not believe they are absolute objective reality, that's almost an impossibility. They will always be a reflection of many different influences in any organization. Even though the data might be accurate, the selection of data to present might be based, in part, on the desire to create an optical illusion. Reports are an important (I believe, vital) window to the sustainability performance of a Company, but they are only one piece of that Company's reality. In reading reports, we need to be appreciative of what Companies are trying to tell us, but also critical of they way they present and what they present. We have to suspend our own judgement and read, as far as we can, between, behind, above and under the lines, with a glance to the left, right and reverse views. Clumsy presentation may hide outstanding performance. Slick reporting may mask inadequate performance. In both cases, we should try to give credit where it's due, and seek improvement by feeding back our perspectives to the reporting company. 

Anyway, one thing I am pleased about is that this morning's Chunky Monkey breakfast was certainly not an optical illusion (as can be corroborated by my waistline measurement).

elaine cohen is co-founder and co-CEO of Beyond Business, a leading social and environmental consulting and reporting firm. Visit our website at


Clayton said...

Great post Elaine, and a very helpful and healthy perspective, clearly emanating from your wealth of experience working with those on the 'inside' seeking to get their stories out in the best possible way, often via multiple internal challenges. As with any type of assessment and reporting, constructive engagement around the report is likely to elicit greater insight and understanding (and future improvements) than merely accepting a report at face value or leaping to conculsions.

elaine said...

Thank you Clayton for reading and for commenting. Glad we agree!

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