Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sustainability Reporting - going too far?

Have you come across a sustainability report for a brand ? I have been trying to think if I have seen anything that comes close, and I can't say I have.

One of the core aspirations of consumer brand companies is to attract and engage consumers. However, consumers don't appear to make a big effort to read sustainability reports. On the one hand, companies want to engage with their consumers, and leverage their sustainability efforts as an element of their competitive advantage. On the other hand, the wealth of sustainability information that is now available about about corporations goes over the heads of consumers. Unless there is a big deal like the BP oil spill, or the H&M discarded clothes disaster or claims of child labor in Bangladesh or wherever. Most consumers don't go out of their way to look for sustainability data and wouldn't know how to read a sustainability report if you planted it on the bridge of their nose. Sustainability reports serve a range of valuable purposes, even if they are not noticed by consumers. However, many companies produce such reports in the hope that consumers will read them and be impressed.

Why is consumer awareness of sustainabilty reports so low? Obvious. Because reports are hosted where consumers are not. When I go to a supermarket to purchase branded goods, I don't see Sustainability Reports strategically placed on the supermarket shelves. When I buy a new PC, or refrigerator, or even a new car .. purchases which require a conversation with a salesperson and therefore an opportunity to talk sustainability -  no-one shoves a sustainability report down my throat. But frankly, even if this happened, and if Kellogg's CSR Report were stacked next to the shelf of cornflakes, or each showrroom car had a Sustainability Report carefully placed on the driver's seat for all those who need to get into a car before considering whether to buy it, I am not sure consumers would take the time to read it.

Why doesn't the consumer want to read a sustainabililty report? Obvious. Because the report is about the company behind the brand, a relationship which is 2 degrees away from the consumer. What the consumer can relate to is the impacts of the specific brand that the consumer is purchaisng or about to purchase. That's why the Barcoo invention is so brilliant. It gives the consumer information in exactly the place and exactly at the time the consumer needs it. When she is making a purchasing choice. However, Barcoo sustainability information is about the company, not the brand. Only product related information such as ingredients etc is detailed by brand.

The solution? A sustainability report by BRAND. Oy. Doesn't that sound like a headache ?

The BRAND sustainability report would be part of the brand value proposition.  Maybe it doesn't have to be such a headache. There are some sustainability metrics which are brand specific and some which relate to total company. Take Jaffa Oranges. These are sold with a label showing their carbon footprint per orange. Take most consumer brands. They all have packaging. Some even have small stick-on pamphlets which contain advertising material or information about the product. What if these were to contain a mini-version of the brand's sustainability information, with a link to that brand's Sustainability Report? Many shoppers have internet access on their cellphones, iphones or ipads when they go shopping. Most  may content themselves with reading more when they get home, because the URL for the Brand Sustainability Report would be listed on the packaging. What if there were a possibility to text message feedback at the POS to the company about the brand and its sustainability proposition? Would this be used by consumers ?

How do you go about preparing a BRAND sustainability report? Pretty much in the same way you prepare a budget for the brand. Direct costs, variables, overheads. Each brand would be assigned its share of total company overheads whilst specifics such as energy use in production, packaging volumes etc would be brand specific. There are some elements of the report that would be common to all the brands owned by a specific company, such as overall community involvement programs.  I believe that it could be a feasible calculation for a company that is used to reporting on a total company basis. Take the way Intel reports, for instance. They produce their total company report and then similar local reports that follow the party line but inject  local flavor for local stakeholders. Could not this principle be used for reporting by brand?

Finally, after all this, the trillion $ question is, is it worth the effort and would  consumers really care? Would this give a sales advantage to a brand with a sustainability report (at least until the others catch up)? Would the time and effort to produce such a report far outweigh the potential benefits for all but the largest billion $ global brands ? Would the sustainability focus by brand actually create a new prism for improving sustainability performance within a company and lead to better decision making ? Or is this just taking sustainability reporting toooooooooooo far? I don't know. But I was thinking about it so I wrote it. What do you think ?

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)

1 comment:

Jackie said...

I think it is an interesting idea. In my opinion your post outlines one way a brand can take the vast content that goes into a comprehensive sustainability report and distill town to relevant pieces of info for the consumer. The opportunity in this is that the consumer may start to have a better understanding and appreciation for the sustainability initiatives and how it ladders up to the larger impact.

Enjoyed the post and it certainly got me thinking...

Jackie Titus

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