How do you edit sustainability? What's relevant when you are the editor of a sustainability publication?
One person that confronts these questions every day is Tom Idle, a writer, journalist, editor and commentator in the field of corporate sustainability, climate change policy, environmental protection, clean energy and renewables, and corporate social responsibility. Currently, Tom is Editor of Sustainable Business, a climate change and sustainability magazine. I will be meeting up with Tom at the Smart Sustainability Reporting Conference which I will be chairing on 15th May in London, so I asked Tom about what goes through his mind as editor.
Here are a few of the things that Tom told me:
"I am constantly asking myself the question: What is a sustainable business? The answer is, of course, that a truly sustainable business does not yet exist. The challenge for me is sorting the wheat from the chaff. A growing number of companies are taking it incredibly seriously; shifting their business models to prepare for the new paradigm. Many others are making incremental changes, which ought to be applauded. It's important that the two sets of companies are not treated the same from an editorial point of view."
"We are living in interesting times. The challenges posed by the dire economic state of the West, potentially catastrophic climate change, a growing population, suspected peak oil, emerging economies, etc, etc. call for a revolution in the way in which we live, buy, sell and behave. To be writing about sustainability issues right here, right now, makes me feel alive. I am part of the debate and, hopefully, my magazine offers part of the solution. I happened upon this agenda by chance not long after graduating as a journalist. Now I'm here, I won't be leaving."
"I am keen to get away from the term 'corporate sustainability' and to talk more about smarter business. Adopting green practices and processes is sustainable. But it's also about being smart. A lot of this stuff is about doing business better. "
"I want everybody that books a place at the conference to have a good time. I want them to learn something new and to teach the person sitting next to them something new. This is not just a listening exercise - this is a chance to meet new people, learn new ways of doing things and to have fun. From the stage, I want to hear some great stories. That is what journalism is: storytelling. And stories, told well, make great editorial for the magazine."
"I want the Smart Sustainability Reporting Conference to rip up the rule book that has been built over the years, telling companies how they should put their annual CSR report together. I want businesses to question the objective of sustainability reporting and find smarter ways of doing it - with the 'how', 'why' and 'what' centre of mind."
Tom tends to skim-read many Sustainability Reports and uses them to grab the headlines on any company that he might be writing about. What does ripping up the rule book mean? What does he consider to be a "smart" report?
"For me, it's got to be about materiality. What's the point in companies spending lots of energy reporting on things that are of no interest to their stakeholders? Companies need to find value in the activity of sustainability reporting. It's not just about the final document and communication. It's about devising methods for extracting the key data that is vital to assessing the company's sustainability credentials and using that in creative, informative and interesting ways that will help drive value across the business and in the supply chain. I feel for reporters, though. It must be a tough job, especially if they are sitting in the midst of an unhelpful workforce that views them as merely a pain in the backside."
Yes, it's true. As a Sustainability Reporter, with broad contact within companies, often interviewing tens of managers for stories and chasing tens of others for data, the feeling of being a "pain in the backside" is not entirely foreign to me. Reporting is a tough job, and doing it well is even tougher. The focus on materiality is key and a fundamental assessment of material issues as the basis for Sustainability Reporting is certainly a smart start-point.
Editing sustainability, therefore, is giving critical voice to the material impacts for which companies are accountable, and their consequent outcomes. Using relevant and meaningful case studies to illustrate how all this happens is part of the editorial skill. Editing Sustainability and Sustainability Reporting, apparently, have a lot in common.
Tom's insights led me to wonder if Sustainability Editors are just as much a pain in the backside as Sustainability Reporters? I didn't ask him that question.
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 www.twitter.com/elainecohen on Twitter or via my business website www.b-yond.biz/en (Beyond Business, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)