Saturday, January 22, 2011

The GRI Report Survey Report

You will all recall the GRI Readers's Choice Awards last year and the reporting survey that formed part of the competition. Some of you may recall how the Brazilians cleaned up, winning six first place awards out of a total of six first place awards (see the awards brochure here).

Well, now you can read what went on behind the scenes. The Reporting Change : Readers and Reporters Survey 2010 has just been published by Futerra, KPMG and Sustainability. The key thing about the survey was its simultaneous focus both on the readers of reports and those who write them, to assess whether there is an expectation match and a mutual alignment of needs. Three great sustainability minded firms have analysed the results. Here are their conclusions:

The first conclusion is that the future of  reporting is global. This is immediately followed by a revelation that over 70% of the (5,227) respondents were from Brazil (73% actually, with 10% from India, 5% from the USA and 12% form the rest of the world). Maybe the future of reporting is Brazilian? However, the report makes the point that the emerging strong presence of BRIC countries in the reporting arena shows that "appreciating cultural differences vitally important in reporting".
The second conclusion is that purpose of reporting is performance. "Reporting is driving performance worldwide .....Above any other business case for reporting, making real progress on sustainability is the priority". This is a very important assertion, putting to bed once and for all the cry that "No-one reads reports" as an excuse for not writing them. Reporting, as I too have always maintained, is a catalyst for performance and for engaging employees and others in the sustainability effort. 
The third conclusion is that reporting isn't stakeholder engagement. Reporters apparently, see reports as an engagement tool, but readers do not. Of course, if reporters do nothing to proactively engage stakeholders around the report, and just dump it on their website for people to (maybe) find, then this mismatch is understandable. 
The fourth conclusion is that reporting is trusted. But then, the report goes on to say, less that 10% of readers believe that reporting presents a complete picture. So readers believe what they read, but think it's selective. Partial trust, I guess, is better than none.  
The fifth conclusion is that standards have value. This means that the GRI framework improves comparability and transparency. This is true, up to a point.
The sixth conclusion is that all assurance is not equal. Aarrrgh.. Don't get me started on assurance. This is the understatement of understatements. Assurance quality is more diverse than the biodiversity in the tropical forests of Panama.
The seventh conclusion is that readers influence each other. Stakeholders share information with each other. Some even blog about reports. Like me. Though they didn't mention that in the Reporting Change Report.
The eigth conclusion is that reporting changes behaviour. Hear this: "Readers are investing, seeking employment and buying Reporters’ products and services based on sustainability reports. One-third of Readers are also inspired by reports to take further actions that contribute to the broad sustainability agenda." I also believe that the reporting process changes the internal behaviour of people in the business. More about that in coming months.
The ninth conclusion is that ... haha .. gotcha... there were only eight conclusions. Though I do wonder why ice cream didn't figure in any of them.  

Overall, this is a nice overview and presents the positive aspects of Sustainability Reporting from an audience which is already tuned in. There are no real "dissenting voices" in this survey, with the exception of about 10% of American readers who say that reports don't influence them at all. The survey really didn't ask any tough questions such as "Is sustainability reporting really worth the effort?" or "Can you really survive another reporting cycle without a nervous breakdown?".  

Notwithstanding (love that word), we can all be encouraged by the survey results which show that "60% of Readers claim their commitment and connection to an organisation is positively influenced by reading a sustainability report." That's a nice piece of quotable data if you are trying to convince your CEO to make the move towards reporting. Especially if she lives in Brazil.

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, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

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