Saturday, July 16, 2011

10 reasons not to write a CSR report

I suspect most people could come up with 3,483 reasons not to write a CSR report and all are probably true, but some are truer than others. I suspect there are more companies asking themselves why not write a report today, rather than asking why. The pressure to report is increasing and more companies are joining the reporting pool each year. So here are 10 reasons not to write a (first) report.

ONE: You have nothing to report.
It's never perfect. There is always more you can do in terms of sustainability performance before you launch the process of writing your first report. There is always a balance to be found between a lightweight report and a content-rich report. You shouldn't wait until you have got everything nailed down before you report (because you never have everything nailed down). But frankly, if you have no sustainability performance to report in any of the core areas of your business operations, then producing a compilation of CSR marketing-oriented mumbo jumbo and calling it a Sustainability Report won't cut it. By all means, produce a CSR brochure, or a CSR statement or a CSR policy paper ... but a report should contain disclosures of PERFORMANCE and not just intention. So if you ain't got it, don't report it. Work on getting it.

TWO: Your sustainability performance is really awful
So you measure your carbon footprint and it's been increasing year on year. You had 5 fatalities in your operations last year. Employee engagement survey results show that more are disengaged than engaged. You just paid a $30 million lawsuit for gender discrimination. Your supply chain audit showed that most suppliers are not compliant. Your CSO has just resigned. Now is not the time to publish your first sustainability report. Get working on addressing the issues. Get some good process in place. Then think about reporting.

THREE: You have no data-collection processes in place
Your first report should not stress out the organization in a way which immobilizes it because none of the data flows that measure sustainability performance are in place. If you have no data at all in your business - you have been recycling but you haven't measured the volume, you have reduced waste but you don't know by how much, you have had calls to your Ethics Hotline but you don't know how many, you have reduced employee turnover but you haven't measured turnover rates... then you have to concentrate on getting data infrastructures in place. It is better to postpone publishing your first report than to publish one with inadequate basic data - concentrate on getting a robust data-collection process in place.

FOUR: Your data is not reliable
You still work on excel and your data aggregation relies on many different individual inputs from around your company's globe. You have no formal internal auditing procedures in place and you cannot be sure that the data is reliable. Why publish it? You will only have to issue corrections down the line, which can create credibility issues. Make sure your data is robust and accurate before publishing your first report.

FIVE: You are in your first year of business
No matter how strong your commitment is to sustainability and even if your business was founded along sustainability principles, one year is not enough to demonstrate performance in all three triple bottom line areas of sustainability. You might have had a good first year, but wait to see if your second year is similar. Publish a first report only after two full years of business.

SIX: You have no budget
Yep, sorry to tell you this, folks, but reporting costs money. It may come as no surprise that I recommend using a consultant who specializes in writing sustainability reports (yes, ok, like me!), especially if this is your first report. This is based on experience. I have several clients who have produced their own report in-house and then come to ask me to turn it into, well, a report. One client recently confirmed that their management said they "can now appreciate what a quality report looks like" after using our report-writing services, the first time they have used an external provider. There is no getting away from the fact that reporting is not something anyone can do just because they work in the sustainability area and can string a few coherent sentences together. Sustainability reporting, for it to benefit both the company and speak to its stakeholders, requires experience and skill. For a first report, allocate some money to make that happen well.

SEVEN: You have no time
Clients come to me saying "We want a report in three months." For a seasoned reporter, whose data flows are well oiled and who have very detailed logging of sustainability events throughout the year, I suspect this may be possible (though I have never been part of a reporting process which has been completed from start to publication in three months). For others, well, reporting is not an off-the-shelf product. The reporting process takes time. It has to. It requires a different approach to the presenting the business performance and a different set of stories and data-points. These take time to develop. It involves many people for whom reporting is not their most urgent priority and who have many other things to do. People go on vacation. People are sick. People just don't get around to it. You have to have enough slack in your process to allow for all of this. If you have no time in your schedule for whatever reason to allocate a realistic timeframe for the report, then postpone your first report for another year.

EIGHT: You have no buy-in
A sustainability report doesn't belong to the CSO or to any individual manager in the business. No-one can publish a quality sustainability report alone. Even if the CEO decides there should be a sustainability report, it cannot happen without the buy-in and active collaboration of the senior management team and their teams. If you find that you are just not able to generate enough support to ensure a respectable flow of content, then stop. (This doesn't mean EVERYONE has to be behind it. There will always be those on a management team who question the value of reporting). But if everyone is against, and uncooperative, hold that first report and focus your energies on helping some of them come around.

NINE: You want to maintain a reputation as non-transparent, non-accountable and unsustainable
Most companies wouldn't declare this as an objective but not reporting defaults to this. RATS (Responsibility, Transparency, Accountability, Sustainability) is the way leading companies work these days. Fact. None are perfect but most are on the journey. Not reporting is equivalent to declaring that RATS is not important to you. If that's really the case, then don't go for that first report.

TEN: You have no ice-cream
Reporting is not an easy task. Ice cream always makes it easier. If you have problems securing a regular supply of ice-cream for the reporting team, postpone that first report until you can get it organized. 

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability 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)


Rikke Netterstrom said...

Hi Elaine,
Thank you for your excellent blog. Many, many insightful comments. This one, however, is the first time I find myself vastly disagreeing. Having taken half a dozen companies through first-time reporting, I find that it is possible to produce credible and meaningful reporting, as long as the buy-in is there (Yes, I do agree with that point!) Lack of data, poor performance etc are just bad excuses not to be transparent. I see reporting as an important process to explain, address and improve performance, so would much rather see an honest admission of shortfalls than an wall of silence.

Best, Rikke

elaine said...

HI Rikke, thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, I do understand your point, and many of my reporting clients are also first-time reporters...and I have often said that reporting is always better than not reporting and up to a point, despite this post, I think that's true. However, there is a point at which trying to report when there is really nothing there becomes a self-defeating exercise, and I do believe it is better to postpone for a year, or perhaps less, in order to get some fundamentals in place. In most cases, companies that do not have a basis to report do not have a great fondness for telling everyone they have no data and no processes. Reporting has to be the outcome of action, otherwise it just becomes an promise for action. You dont need a report for that.

For companies who wish to get started on the transparency journey, but are not able to report, there are some softer options. I start some clients off with a Communication on Progress to the UNGC, for example, or even just greater disclosure about practices on a website. Or a brochure about sustainability approach.

We have to be careful not to devalue reporting, I think.

Thanks again for your insight.

rsolo said...

Very good comments! Can you point me to any information regarding the cost for a typical CSR report?
I relaize the cost will vary with the complexity of the netity being reviewed, but I am looking for ranges.



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