Friday, May 9, 2014

Gone fishing. You coming?

When you are in the process of preparing a sustainability report, there is something you can't help but notice. It happens very frequently, with the best of intentions. It's the fact that people keep coming to you with things they did last month or last week and saying: "That would be good to put in the report." There seems to be a universal expectation that almost anything people did that was slightly "good" should be part of the sustainability report, because (a) sustainability report should contain "good" things and (b) sustainability reports should contain everything - aka - the more you can cram in, the more transparent you will appear to be and that can only be a good thing, right? 

This approach is not surprising, really. For years we have been talking about "doing good", giving back", "being nice","good business" and all the other fun phrases you can probably think of. It's not surprising that everyone in organizations thinks that sustainability reports should be a compilation of the highest number of good things an organization can muster up, irrespective of how significant they are. We held an Easter Egg hunt for a local school. We installed a recycling bin in our office. We hired a disabled person. We installed a low-flush toilet in the CEO's private office. We planted six trees in a park near our factory. We thought about carbon emissions. Four employees now carpool to the office. We donated left-over carrots from lunch to the local homeless shelter. Things can get a little ridiculous. Although these little things can actually be tremendously important for the individuals involved, in the grander scheme of things, and in the less grander scheme of sustainability reporting, they are probably not quite so mindblowing. 

Similarly, for years we have been talking about transparency. More is more, not less. More data, more transparent, more sustainable. More details, more respect. More stories, more trust. Transparency became this great megalithic everything that was more important that the substance itself. Transparency at all costs. This had everybody aiming for the iconic GRI "A", oft noted in press releases as the highest achievement or even the highest accolade for a sustainability report. 

In a culture which was rewarding maximum positive transparency, it's not surprising that every time someone thought of some small magnanimous action, it was considered eligible narrative for the sustainability report. 

But that was then. That was before G4. G4 has helped shift our mindset to relevant transparency, not maximum transparency. To the point that, as I conduct the hundreds of conversations with people in organizations that I serve as I help them prepare their forthcoming sustainability reports, I sort of consider myself to be somewhat of a fisherwoman. 

I fish for the information the report needs, I don't always catch the information the people want to give. 

Writing a sustainability report is like going fishing. You need a good rod, proper bait, some ice cream to help you pass the time while you reel in several empty rods or old shoes, and infinite amounts of patience as you wait for the prize fish to show. A sustainability report made up of prize fish is infinitely more useful than one which contains a not very discerning collection of general garbage. Haha. If this resonates, get a new fishing rod.   

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, winning (CRRA'12) Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me at   or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

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