Friday, April 1, 2011

A very tasty CSR conference

This time last week I was engrossed in fascinating conversations at the Justmeans  Redefining Value: Integrated Reporting and Measuring Sustainability Conference in London on 25th March 2011. But before I talk about content, I can't help but mention that the conference was held at the best conference venue I can ever recall in having visited in London - the Brewery - complete with a sustainability policy and gourmet food worthy of so many sustainability people, hungry for change and hungry for the best conference lunch in London. (OK, no ice cream, but what the heck!). The conference itself was serious, thought-provoking, no ribbons and bells, just 5 intensive sessions with lots of talking, many insights and a few challenges to the status quo. Some sessions were more valuable than others, as inevitably happens, but all were interesting. Lunch provided a welcome break for ribbons and bells, with the announcement of the Social Innovation Awards winners in a tastefully done ceremony where every winner got to say a few words about their accomplishments.

The conference started out with a powerful panel session moderated by Justmeans CEO, Martin Smith, intended to be a catch-up with what's happening in the world of non-financial reporting, with leading players in the form of the GRI (Nelmara Arbex), A4S project (Jessica Fries) and the CDP (Paul Dickinson) .There is a consensus that sustainability reporting is not mainstream, despite the daily Sustainability Report announcements that fill our RSS feeds. The GRI, as my regular readers will know, is moving towards G4 which should address some of the current shortfalls of the GRI framework while A4S is planning a pilot program to enhance non-financial reporting without increasing complexity and length, among other things. The CDP has now completed 9 reporting cycles, demonstrating that "repetitious normalization" is gaining the attention of 551 investor groups who represent $71 trillion in funds, more than the GDP of the world. 3,000 companies reported to the CDP, rather less than the number who issued sustainability reports, last year. The single biggest challenge for reporting is mainstreaming sustainability reporting in a harmonized way (GRI), providing data to shareholders (CDP) and getting the right systems in place (A4S). The point was made that reporting should not only be about the past but how a company intends to create its sustainable future. It is true that this often gets lost in backward looking reports and even companies who express targets do not often explain how they expect to achieve the targets in their reporting .

"What is driving the growth of international standards?"  was the question that led the next panel session , led by Judy Kuszewski whom it was nice to meet in person after our twitterous acquaintance to date. The fascinating takeout of this panel was the collection of perspectives from Carsten Ingerslev, the Director of the Danish Government Center for CSR, who said that "if we leave things up to the market, they won't happen quickly enough". It is certainly a good thing to see a government body taking initiative to drive CSR, and of the 91% (I think) of the top 1,100 companies in Denmark who chose to report following the law which came into effect in FY2009, 43% were reporting for the first time. (The Danish law, which was an amendment to the Financial Statements Act, requires companies to report on non-financial matters or give a reason why not. Of course, not too many companies are happy to say they don't give a hoot about sustainability, even if they are not sharing sustainability prime-time, so reporting becomes the only viable alternative.). Carsten said that the companies who did report confirmed that they gained benefit and were able to understand risks and opportunities for their businesses in a way they had not before. The Danish motto: you can't fly below the radar. Sustainability reporting is the radar. The "comply or explain" model is surely one which will be emulated, I suspect. Wim Bartels made the point that building the systems required for good non-financial reporting needs accountants. But who would have expected less from a partner in sustainability services at KPMG. He has a point, but some pushback was felt from the audience who suggested that sustainability reporting needs anything BUT accountants. This, when you consider that the IIRC is comprised of almost exclusively accountants and financial specialists, may already be a lost cause.

The next session showcased reporting leaders from Novo Nordisk, Novozymes and the data collection systems company Enablon. The best quote from this session was "you can't internally manage unless you externally report" (Dan Vogel of Enablon) . The question of how far you can monetize sustainability in integrated reporting was one of the interesting aspects raised, as the drive to fit sustainability into financial reporting frameworks may just create pressure in this direction. All agreed that better models to measure impact and the cost-benefits of sustainability impacts are required.

Toby Heaps of Corporate Knights and the 100 Best Corporate Citizens posed the question: Will social change happen through capital markets? and then proceeded to answer it by explaining that radical transparency is the key. Wow. Sounds so easy. The 100 Best Corporate Citizens has honed in on 10 core indicators which are the clue to radical transparency. Caution. This is a buzzword. Use it sparingly. Considering that only 2% of UNPRI signatories, according to Toby, disclose non-financial information, transparency has apparently not reached radical levels quite just yet. Bloomberg, in the form of Curtis Ravenel, align with Denmark in the belief that regulation is the only way forward.

Finally, a large lunch, a few exquisite muffins and some delightful pastries later, (N.B. Don't diet at Justmeans conferences), BP (Nicholas Robinson) took center stage and explained what it's like not to sleep at night when you need to produce a sustainability report when everyone is accusing you of being about as sustainable as a rabbi at the Vatican. After being slapped with the largest class action law suit in history, trying to produce sustainability report sounds like something only Merlin the wizard might attempt. However, without Merlin's assistance, apparently, but with a strong dose of Triazolam, BP has done it (see here - more on that in a later post). The complexities of reporting for companies who are dual listed (US and UK) were interesting to hear about from BP, who took four years to combine their different submissions into one report that meets both requirements. Hmmm. And that's only financial reporting. At that rate, integrated reporting should be with us by the time my great-great-grandchildren will wonder whether separate reporting was ever an option. Another interesting discussion in this panel was about what happens when Greenpeace decide you are the bad guys and viralize a gory video about endangered orang-utans, attacking one of your iconic brands. Invite them to the table, was the answer from Niels Cristiansen, the Public Affairs guy at Nestle. I just hope the conference room refreshments did not include Kit Kat. Greenpeace asked Nestle to develop an auditing plan for their rainforest impacts and Nestle agreed. Not only this, but the Head of Operations at Nestle is reported to have said "I am glad they did because it made us a better company." Who needs McKinsey when Greenpeace can help you improve your bottom line?

By this time, my head was reeling with  many old and new concepts, and my waistline was begging for relief, so it was probably a good thing that Justmeans didn't cram any more into this day. I will certainly be happy to attend another Justmeans conference, but only if they hold it at the Brewery.

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)


Michael Luehrs said...

So much information here, Elaine. It inspired me to write a post of my own:

I find important your points that organizations must not simply report backward looking findings but should, rather, show how they'll use sustainability measurements to inform action plans for improvement.
Thank you for this. It sounds like we missed a great conference!

elaine said...

hi Michael, great post!! Enjoyed it! Hope to see more event reporting in future. With vegetables!

Anonymous said...

Wow, Elaine, so glad you enjoyed the conference so much, and it was great to meet you, too!

I may not share your enthusiasm, completely, however - although I realize that's probably because I am equal parts jaded and impatient! The integrated reporting agenda should be much more substantial by now, and less characterized by fuzzy intentions and buzzwords, and my hopes of significant enlightenment on this weren't met. That being said, the JustMeans conference was definitely the best platform so far for the discussion of these matters, and many of the panels and panelists were excellent. I particularly enjoyed hearing from Paul Dickinson, Susan Blesener, Claudia Kruse and Nick Robinson.

And the food was great! I look forward to continuing the debate.

elaine said...

thanks for reading and commwnting, Judy. Was great to meet you too! I sense the Integrated Reporting debate is far from being at the point where it will sharpen up .... so you had better stock up on patience for a while to come.

Anonymous said...

Elaine, interesting post, could you share anymore on the ten issues that the companies are honing in on for transparency?

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