Friday, October 29, 2010

Ajinomoto: The building blocks of CSR reporting

I recently reviewed the Ajinomoto 2010 CSR report on I chose to review this report due to my fond memories of being hosted by Ajinomoto in Tokyo, many years ago, for a week of training related to my work at that time. That was a period before I had even heard of CSR or sustainability. Then, you just went about your business, impacts or no impacts. My week at Ajinomoto, both at their head office and in their production plant on the outskirts of Tokyo was one of the most memorable of my business life. The people were delightful, and oh so hospitable, the food was wonderful, the level of professionalism was inspiring and their attention to detail incredible. I even developoed a taste for Japanese food, and a taste I long for to this day is Japanese Green Tea Ice Cream, which marginally beats Chunky Monkey in the ice cream flavour league.

Ajinomoto started in 1907 when the founder Mr Ikeda devised a way to make Umami seasoning, a natural flavour made from seaweed which caught on like hot cakes in Japan at the time, apparently, and still does pretty well. Anyway, I have not been back to Japan since then, and have no further contact with Ajinomoto, but reading their CSR Report brought back warm feelings of a great experience. However, as those of you who know me by now will understand, this did not cause me from being direct and to-the-point about their most recent report.

The Ajinomoto report for 2010 covering fiscal year 2009 seems to be quite true to the company core business – it is built in sections just like the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that Ajinomoto produces. By this, I mean that there are many individually important core sections which are all valuable in their own unique way, but the report as a whole hangs together less well.

For those not familiar with this long standing and well respected Japanese company, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2009, Ajinomoto has revenue of around $21Bn, 70% of which comes from Japan. The company employs over 27,000 people and manufactures seasonings, frozen foods, edible oils, coffee and a range of amino acids as food ingredients and other specialty chemicals. They operate from a total of 107 plants in 15 countries. Ajinomoto's global sustainability program focuses on three overarching issues: global sustainability, food resources and healthy living. In each of these areas, Ajinomoto sets directional objectives, but not specific targets, which is an omission. Each issue is addressed in a full page with some relevant context. Global sustainability refers to water and energy resources and Ajinomoto's core amino acid processes, which are now using more biomass-based carbon-neutral processes. Food resources is about improving the performance of food crops etc through increased performance of Ajinomoto nutrients. Healthy living is about combating malnutrition and providing tasty and healthy food care solutions. Whilst these issues are vital and Ajinomoto has a good basis to consider them material, the treatment of these issues in the report is rather superficial and glosses over the company's actual impacts in these areas. This is not true universally - space is devoted to advancing nutrition, with several pages on Ajinomoto's global nutrition project which started in 1999, including case studies from Malaysia and Ghana.

The rest of the review covers Ajinomoto's excellent stakeholder dialogue coverage as well as reference to their separate environmental report. The company produces both an annual CSR report as well as an annual environmental report. I wonder why ? Maybe this is another reflection of the amino acid - building block mentality. Would it not be easier to produce one Sustainability Report and back up specifics on their website ? In summary, the Ajinomoto CSR report seems to reflect a sincere approach to sustainability but the overall report is not as transparent or nearly as comprehensive as I would expect from a leading Company today.

By the way, in case you were wondering, Ajinomoto means "natural flavour" - which a nice little blog post explains. And now I want to fly to Japan and feast on some natural flavour Green Tea Ice Cream.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via  on Twitter or via my business website  (BeyondBusiness, CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

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