Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sustainability: the Yom Kippur lesson

As Yom Kippur kicks in for another year, it's time to atone for everything we did wrong. You know, sorry for this, sorry for that, apologies, I regret, I am filled with remorse, I repent, I didn't mean it. We are sorry for all our negative impacts this year and we promise to do better. In the Jewish religion, getting through Yom Kippur successfully means you earn a signature in the Book of Life, so that you can live another year. Judging by the not-so-remorseful state of most Sustainability Reports (and corresponding underlying corporate performance), few such signatures would be distributed. Sustainability Reports have become the epitome of self-congratulatory declarations of pride in all that companies have done that can loosely be categorized under the heading of sustainability. They are, often, full of self-satisfaction and conveniently bypass addressing sustainability failures in a frank and honest way.   

BP's 2011 Sustainability Report  could hardly avoid mention of the small Gulf of Mexico blip in the company's history. Bob Dudley, post-spill CEO says "We are so very sorry for what happened". That's an apology, of sorts. I am sure BP has lots of regrets. Yes, it happened. They are sorry about that. Not sure that quite earns them a signature.

So maybe signatures should be handed out for the good things that get done and not the absence of bad things. In this case, we would not need to atone but simply keep on going doing more good things and shouting about them. That would certainly make life simpler, though, in terms of Sustainability Reporting, it wouldn't go far enough in advancing sustainability. Because, ironically, the things that advance sustainability most are probably the things that companies omit from their sustainability reports.

So why is it that companies find it so hard to share their problems? Is a failure a sign of weakness and an apology equivalent to a drop in share price? After many years of working with multinational corporations, I got used to avoiding the word "problem" and referred only to "opportunity". Perhaps this is representative of the mindset which pervades Sustainability Reporting. If we were to be presented with all the outtakes of sustainability reports, it would make for the most interesting reading of all.

Realistically, we probably would not be right in expecting much more from Sustainability Reporting. Framing "failures" in terms of "challenges" and "opportunities" is the corporate world's way of saying we acknowledge the issues and we are trying to work on them.  Going the Full Monty is counter-intuitive. Nonetheless, we learn far more about sustainability performance in Sustainability Reports than we would were they not to exist and disclosure, of sorts, is definitely a driver of improved performance. As long as we understand each other. Transparent sustainability reporting is rarely transparent, it's only part sustainability and it's incomplete reporting. But that's why it works.  We should continue to drive for better sustainability performance and higher quality reporting. But we should also remain vigilant and look for clues about what companies are not telling.

As far as Yom Kippur is concerned, the main issue I have is that no ice cream is allowed for a full 25 hours. But don't ask me to make any disclosures about that ......

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)


Linda said...

Since companies consists of humans, they will also act like humans which have a tendency to not want to get into any unnecessary trouble, who does!

It's like if I would have an affair with my best friend's boyfriend, which is clearly not an ethical thing to do, I have two options. I'm either honest to my friend and tell her about the affair or I'm quiet about it and hope that she won't find out. None of the outcomes are desirable (if the friend actually do find out about it), but the first is more desirable than the second and the chance to regain my friend's trust is bigger as she knows that at least I was honest about the situation.

Katharina said...

First, I would like to stress that there are many positive examples of sustainability reports as well- this is at least my opinion. For example VW actively seeks feedback and publishes (exclusively negative) opinions of readers on the last CSR report. Siemens shows which sustainability goals are not achieved and in which areas the company's performance decreased.
Secondly, I'm not sure if the quality of sustainability reports really declines. I have the feeling that it is on the increase, since the pressure on companies rises and more standards (such as GRI) support more transparent reporting.

elaine said...

Hi Linda, thanks for your comment. I think the situation for corporations is more complex than personal decisions we take in our personal lives about the way we behave. Corporations have responsibilities towards stakeholders which go beyond the personal values of one or more individual. But in general, I agree, that even corporations will end up better off it they are authentic and honest. best, elaine

elaine said...

Hi Katharina, thanks for your comment. I agree that there are examples of Sustainability Reports in which companies come clean about the issues they face or have not dealt with well. I also think the quality of reports is improving, on the whole. We are seeing more comprehensive disclosures. Most companies show performance data, even if the data does not indicate an improvement in performance, such as increase in carbon emissions. However, I think we are still seeing a great reluctance by most companies to get to the very nitty gritty issues which underlie their entire sustainability approach - banks and the effets of lending policies; pharma and approaches to marketing, lobbying, regulation; fashion and the impact of the beauty industry on women; heavy industry and biodiversity issues and more; motor vehicles and the impact of traffic on urban pollution and road safety etc. Sustainability reports need to deal with these issues as well as reporting direct performance impacts.
best, elaine

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