Friday, July 27, 2012

Sustainability: What the Numbers Tell You

Sustainability is not only about numbers. When all is said and done, sustainability is about people, community, society, collective responsibility and action, stories and interventions. But, sometimes, the numbers form a picture, and pictures can help us develop new insights and change our paradigms. And this can lead to new action. So,  when the The Conference Board, a non-profit organization which creates and disseminates knowledge about management and the marketplace to help executives make the right strategic decisions,  published a deep-dive study - perhaps the most comprehensive study available - of Sustainability Practices of thousands of companies around the world, containing more numbers about Sustainability Practices than I suspect you have ever seen in one place, you have to sit up and take notice. Ready?

The study is called Sustainability Practices 2012 Edition and is a 176 page epic, containing more data than anyone can absorb in one sitting and a wealth of relevant information for anyone interested in sustainability numbers, trends, areas of focus by sector and by subject, and opportunities to make a difference. The report was prepared in collaboration with Bloomberg, who runs one of the most extensive real-time financial and non-financial information networks to hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and with the GRI - no introduction necessary.

Sustainability Practices 2012 Edition is based on a global sample of 3000 business organizations tracked by Bloomberg's Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) database and covers 72 environmental and social practices including: atmospheric emissions, water consumption, biodiversity policies, labor standards, human rights practices, and charitable and political contributions. For benchmarking purposes, Bloomberg ESG data is compared with the S&P 500 (large capitalization U.S. companies) and the Russell 1000 (market cap-weighted index of U.S. companies), and further analyzed across 11 business sectors, using the CIGS code, and four revenue groups (under $1 billion, $10 billion, $100 billion and over $100 billion). The findings of the report are split into three broad areas: Disclosure Practices, Environment Practices and Social Practices.

Now for the numbers. Sitting up and taking notice?

This is the overall social and environmental disclosure rate for companies in the global Bloomberg ESG 3000 Index, which is made up of largely non-U.S. companies. Does that surprise you? Only 574 companies out of a total 3,000 disclose on the full spectrum of 72 sustainability practices analyzed. This compares with 15% in the S&P 500 and 10% in the Russell 1000, showing that U.S. companies are lagging when it comes to overall sustainability disclosure. Match this with the next number:

This is the number of companies in the Bloomberg ESG 3000 Index which released Sustainability Reports - 747 companies. More companies are reporting than disclosing. What does that tell us? That Sustainability Reporting is not delivering full transparency. In other words, just because it's called a Sustainability Report doesn't mean that it's transparent. By comparison, in the U.S., 45%  of the S&P 500 and 24% of the Russell 1000 publish reports. However, these indices are smaller and include large-cap, often global, companies, headquartered in the U.S., versus the Bloomberg Index which includes only 510 U.S. companies, 17% of the total 3000 sample. Overall the Bloomberg 3000 is weighted towards Japanese companies who have 27% of the sample, and with strong representation from India, China and the UK, and a host of other countries.  So Sustainability Reporting is more widespread globally than it is in the U.S. But that's not news. Match this with this next number:

This is the rate of Sustainability Reporting for companies with more than $100 billion in annual revenues. Not surprising, perhaps, that this is a high figure. The larger the company, the greater its impacts, the more extensive its resources, the greater its risk exposure, the higher the expectations from stakeholders. However, 20% of these mega-corps are still resisting the reporting opportunity. The rate of Sustainability Reporting drops to 63% for companies over $10 billion, 25% for companies below $10 billion and only 4% for companies below $1 billion. $1 billion is still a heck of a company size and has potential for some serious impact. Who is chasing the other 96%? Match this with this next number:

This is the rate of companies in the telecommunications services sector which publish Sustainability Reports. This is the highest reporting sector in the Bloomberg 3000. Contrary to the long-held view (and data) that financial services companies and energy companies have been leading the fray in sustainability reporting, only 20% and 25% respectively in these two sectors are publishing reports at a global level.

 Great work by telcos. What's driving this industry's reporting prowess? Match that with this number:

This is the rate of telcos which use the GRI guidelines to report. Again, this is the highest rate of all sectors, with an overall average being 30%, generally lower than the hype would suggest. Consumer Discretionary and Information Technology companies have the lowest uptake rate of the GRI guidelines, at 27%.  Again, we find that the highest revenue companies are more likely to use GRI guidelines (66% - 23 companies) versus the lowest revenue companies (10% - 109 companies). The picture in the telecommunications sector is both of high disclosure and high use of the GRI guidelines. Telcos also have the highest rate of report verification and assurance at 26% (versus an overall average of 13%).  Match that with this number:

telcos. No wonder it's so expensive to connect.  But take a look at these numbers:

54% - 43%
The numbers of women employed in the workforce and the numbers of women in management in the telco sector. Hah! One of my favorite indicators.  Not so rosy in the IT sector, where women make up 13% of the workforce and only 9% of management. Across all sectors, the lowest revenue group of companies has the highest proportion of women in management - 24%. Telcos stand out for positive diversity in other respects too - with 26% disabled employees, and 7% of minorities in management. Apparently, if you are a disabled woman from a minority group,  you stand the best chances of advancing your career in a telco. If you are a man, the materials sector is for you. A median 86% of managers are male, and 85% of the total workforce. Match that with this number:

This is the proportion of companies reporting employee fatalities in the Bloomberg 3000. Only 197 companies out of 3000 disclose this figure (even less in the U.S. large company Russell 1000, where only 36 companies disclose). The average rate of fatalities across all those companies reporting is 2, but the Information Technology Sector inflates this average with a total of 6 fatalities. Conclusion: don't go into IT if you value your life. Match that with this number:

This is the proportion of companies that disclose their Health and Safety Policy. This includes 58% of Information Technology companies where six people died. Just think how things might improve if 100% of companies had a Health and Safety Policy. Would things get worse, or better? Match that with this number:

This is the average number of workforce accidents reported by the 12% (364) companies who disclose this information. I calculate this to be a total of  almost half a million accidents in this small sample. Only 5% of companies report how many lost workhours result from these accidents, reporting an average 56,111 lost hours across only 137 companies, but this is much higher than the average in large U.S. companies, which report an average of 36,121 hours (13 companies) in the Russell 1000. This might indicate that it is safer to work in the U.S.  Or that you have your accident, and get back to work pronto. Even so, the Russell 1000 indicates the lost-time equivalent of 18 employees per year per company that do not come to work as a result of an accident. Rather shocking, don't you think? The impact on families and communities of such safety issues can be quite significant. Match that with this number:

This is the proportion of companies which disclose their charitable giving. I would have expected this number to be higher. Companies like to tell their good news. Match that with this number:

This is the average community spending reported in the energy sector in the Bloomberg 3000. This is by far the highest rate of charitable giving, comparing with an average across all companies which disclosed of almost $28 million. The healthcare sector is the second largest giver with an average of $98 million reported by 47 companies. Industrial sector companies have not been bitten by the bug to this extent, apparently, with the giving average at a mere $10 million reported by 232 companies. Match that with this number:

This is the median total corporate giving reported for 21 companies with in the highest revenue group - over $100 billion. If ya got it, share it. Seems to work for them. Companies with under $1 billion revenues give a median of $88,552. Yes, that's thousands, not millions. Match that with this number:

This is the average utilities sector spend on political lobbying, more than double that of any other sector in this study. Overall, in the Bloomberg 3000, the average amount spent on lobbying is $226,065 per company (though only 14% of companies disclose this information). Interestingly, in the U.S. alone, the amount spent is three times that much. The politicization of business in the U.S. is quite some investment, it seems, if you are a utilities company. Wonder if it's worth it?

I am going to stop here for now, while I continue to study this report. You can read a great review of key findings and  broader conclusions of this report  in the Conference Board's Press Release. Or you can wait for my next post, as I will definitely have more to say about this in the coming week, after getting to the rest of the numbers that I have not looked at yet in detail. 

In the meantime, you might now like a little light relief, by watching the Sustainability Practices 2012 Edition authors, Matteo Tonello, Director of Corporate Leadership at the Conference Board and  Thomas Singer, Conference Board Research Associate, talk about the importance and relevance of this study and what this means. It's short and to the point and contains no numbers.

Thomas Singer rounds off with this perspective: "To a large extent, sustainability is about long-term risk management. It's about making sure that, if you are a company that is dependent on finite resources, you make sure that those resources are available, that they are clean and that you have access to them in the long haul. However there is a very important second part to sustainability which is ensuring innovation and new products, new markets. It is those companies that actually go beyond seeing sustainability as a risk strategy and more of an innovation strategy, those are the companies that really become sustainability leaders in the long term"

Final Tip: ice cream is a great remedy, if your eyes are getting a little fatigued from figures and percentages. Any flavor will do.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, winning (CRRA'12) 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  (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

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