Thursday, November 13, 2014

7 short CSR reports - the better and the less better

I was asked by @jenniferwoofter on Twitter if  I can recommend any short reports - under or around 20 pages - that are effective in communicating sustainability. I always have a problem remembering where I found good reporting practice. I ought to develop a system. (Note to self: that to-do list just keeps getting longer). So, in order to respond to Jennifer, and refresh my thinking, I did a little research using the GRI Global Reporting Sustainability Database. It's very hard to find reports that are under or around 20 pages (excluding executive summaries of longer reports) (and, of course, I only look at reports in English (or sort-of English)). It's almost impossible to find short reports in Asia or Latin America and most of Europe. Shorter reports tend to be from U.S. companies. Also, short reporting does not correlate absolutely to company size. It's not just SMEs and local companies that keep reports compact. My list below includes some large global companies with tens of thousands of employees.

Here's what I came up with - the better and less better. I will say that even the less better reports are evidence of some level of commitment and action and while my, as usual, fairly direct criticisms reflect my honest professional opinion in the hope of helping reporters get better value from reporting, I continue to commend and be grateful to companies who report. Reporting is always a challenge and always an achievement. Even short reports can be powerful. Some more than others.

The better

GRI Application Level C, GRI checked, 12 pages excluding GRI Index

Datwyler Cabling Solutions is a supplier of system solutions and services for electrical and ICT infrastructures in public and commercial buildings and in data centers and networks.This is a report for a medium-sized business (less than 1,000 people) that really does the job. It's short, no frills, no stories and no case studies, but it covers the ground and credibly represents a sustainable approach with just about enough data to make it meaningful. Don't look for more sophisticated reporting content, such as a materiality matrix or impact assessments, but for the size of the organization, the report is a simple, concise and clear communication of the organization, its values and its approach in practice. As short reports go, I like this one. 

Sanoma CSR Report 2013, Finland
GRI Application Level C report, 22 pages including GRI index.

Sanoma is a media and learning company based in Finland with operations in several countries and almost 11,000 employees. Sanoma is publicly listed in Finland. This report is delightfully colorful - as we might expect from a media company - and the social mission is clear. "We help people access and understand the world" and the passion "actively shaping the world around us" is well projected. The report is structured with people first (how many reports put people last?), then responsible business activities, then community, then environment. It's an interesting read, although a bit too general in places. The attractive design helps the flow. One thing that is missing, though, despite a tick of the box in the GRI Content Index, is a statement from the leadership. No CEO or General Manager. Maybe this is because Sanoma is just one big team, but without a leadership statement, this report lacks a bit of punch for me. However, it's a good report certainly one of the better shorter ones.

Downer 2013 Corporate Responsibility Report, Australia
GRI Application Level B+, 21 pages, excluding GRI Content index but including Assurance Statement.

Downer is a mining, infrastructure and rail company, listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. Downer employs more than 20,000 people and operates primarily in Australia and New Zealand. This report packs a punch for its 21 pages. It's compactly designed and I love the photography of what appear to be real people that work at Downer and not stock photos of anonymous citizens of the world. The CEO statement is short and to the point and actually evidences some element of strategic thinking. Disappointingly, although Downer attests to following a materiality process, material issues are not listed explicitly, but are said to be the basis for the report content. Data is nicely presented and a few short case studies add to the credibility and interest in this report. Some stakeholder voices are included (internal). The report is well-written and easy to read. This is probably one of the best short reports I have come across.

The less better

A&E 2013-2014 Sustainability Report, USA
Non GRI report, 16 pages

A&E is a provider of threads and yarns for the global fashion industry. It employs more than 10,000 people, a fairly large organization, something you wouldn't guess from the format of this report. This is a home-made report in word format that is rather difficult to read due to the awkward formatting, errors and inconsistent language style. The CEO statement is rather platitudy and weak, although the company does provide evidence in a short 16 pages of sustainable practice. A&E presents Ten Threads of Sustainability and shows a long history of data on environmental impact reduction. However, while the delivery of a report is always a good thing, and far better than not reporting, this report lacks balance, structure and relevance. I am sure that a stronger investment in the reporting process and output would deliver greater value for A&E.

Williams-Sonoma Inc. Corporate Responsibility Report 2013, USA 
Non-GRI report, 22 pages

This is a approach and story-based report that projects a strong commitment and a community orientation for this specialty home-products retailer and e-commerce company, with brands including Pottery Barn and west elm and around 600 retail stores. Williams-Sonoma employs around 28,000 people of whom 7,800 are full time. However, it is almost completely devoid of data. Just to find how many people the company employs, I had to search for the most recent Form 10-K. There are a few numbers around sustainable sourcing of wood and expenditure with artisan workers, but not much else. Despite "forging new relationships to advance our energy goals", we are not treated to a peek at what these energy goals are, not any data about energy consumption, or any other aspect of this company's supply chain. In this case, this short report is too short. It's a nice sustainability-oriented brochure but doesn't pass the litmus-test for a CR Report. 

The Carlyle Group Corporate Citizenship Report 2014, USA
Not GRI Report, 18 pages

The Carlyle Group is an American-based global asset management firm, specializing in private equity, based in Washington D.C employing around 1,700 people. In 2013, Carlyle appointed a first Chief Sustainability Officer. This report is about how Carlyle practices responsible investment and through its investment policies, drives increased awareness and advancement of sustainability practices, as well as helping change practices at portfolio companies. Indeed, there are some very positive initiatives in place.  There is  a section on environmental initiatives in portfolio companies, and a couple of pages on community involvement and work culture. Nice stories and snapshots of responsible investment, but not enough quantified sustainability impacts. A sustainability report that presents almost no data is always rather a disappointment. Disclosing approaches, policies and individual initiatives is always better than no disclosure at all, but credibility increases when we read reports that actually describe performance rather than treat us to story snapshots.

Thermo Fisher Scientific 2013 Corporate Responsibility Report, USA
GRI-based report, undeclared level, 12 pages including GRI Content Index

Thermo Fisher Scientific is an American multinational, biotechnology product development company with 50,000 employees in 50 countries and revenues of $17 billion. The report is organized around the three sustainability priorities of the company - business sustainability (process improvement and efficiencies), employee engagement and philanthropic giving. As such, it's what I call a "shopping-list" report - what we did, where we went, how much we donated. All this is very fine, and although a GRI Content Index is included, there are very few performance indicators of substance. For a company this size and of such breadth, with such an important role to play in the world, we might expect a little more depth to the CR approach and disclosure. The report is pleasant, representing early CSR thinking but lacking the maturity of today's sustainability orientation.  

Writing short reports is not a substitute for acting short on sustainability. Where there is little action of substance, a short report will not fill the gap and show the company up as a sustainability leader just because there are some nice stories and policies. On the other hand, short reports can reflect extensive performance almost as well as long reports, if done well. Interestingly, I realize that the reports I found to be more credible and useful were GRI-based. I hadn't specifically tried to demonstrate that GRI reports are better, but perhaps there is something about working to a framework that helps structure the content and flow of a sustainability report. 

Thanks to Jennifer Woofter for asking me about short reports. I love reports of any length  and this was an interesting analysis. You can guess what I am going to do now.... mmm, maybe banana pecan flavor....

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, 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 via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at to help make your G4 reporting  even better.  

1 comment:

Jennifer Woofter said...

Awesome round-up. Thank you so much Elaine!

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