Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Is EP&L a waste of time?

As promised (threatened?), another post about the work of the WBCSD and my involvement in the Council meetings in Atlanta last week.

I was greatly privileged to moderate a plenary panel session on the subject of "Redefining Value - costing externalities" with three incredible sustainability and business achievers.

Marie-Claire Daveu: Chief Sustainability Officer and Head of International Institutional Affairs of Kering and member of Kering Executive Committee.   

After embarking on a career as a senior civil servant in the field of agriculture and the environment, Marie-Claire Daveu served as Technical Adviser to the Cabinet of Prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the Principal Private Secretary to Serge Lepeltier, Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development, before joining Sanofi-Aventis Group in 2005 as Head of Sustainable Development. From 2007 to 2012, Marie-Claire Daveu served as Principal Private Secretary to Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, first within the Ministry of Ecology, then in charge of forecasting and the digital economy, and lastly, within the Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development, Transport and Housing. Since 2012, Marie-Claire heads up sustainability at Kering. Kering is a Group of 22 Luxury and Sport & Lifestyle brands such as Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, PUMA and others.  

Roberto Salas: CEO of Masisa, Chile

Roberto Salas serves as President of Grupo Nueva and, since 2008, in addition, as CEO at Masisa, one of the Latin American leaders in production and marketing of wood fiber boards for furniture and interior decorations headquartered in Santiago, Chile. Roberto began his career in Grupo Nueva in 1989, Ecuador. Roberto is Co-Chair of the Development Area of World Business Council for Sustainable Development. He was a Professor at the Faculty of Economics, Universidad Católica de Guayaquil, for 17 years.

Roberto Pedote: Chief Financial and Investor Relations Officer, Natura, Brazil

Roberto Pedote is responsible for Natura's financial and legal matters, as well as investor relations and corporate affairs. Formerly, he spent 16 years with Unilever in Brazil, England and Latin America, and served as Finance Vice-President for the Food and Ice Cream Division in Brazil. Prior to this he served as  Finance and Control Director for Nokia of Brazil. Since 2010, Roberto has been a member of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), and in 2013 he was appointed member of the Advisory Board for BM&FBOVESPA Listing. Natura is a Brazilian manufacturer and marketer of beauty products, household, and personal care, skin care, solar filters, cosmetics, perfume and hair care products. 

This was a rare occasion to have a CEO, a CSO and a CFO of major corporations together on a stage and ready to share insights about a rather controversial aspect of sustainability accounting and disclosure. I opened up with a really easy question!

"When we talk about externalities, we refer to all those often invisible impacts on society of doing business – the indirect social and environmental effects of your activities on climate change, health and the quality of life. Does it make sense to suggest that companies should calculate and account for these costs? Or is this just a diversion designed to help companies avoid doing the hard work of changing how they business in a more sustainable way?"

All three panelists responded in different ways, referring to the value of the externality costing approach, particularly as a tool to help resource allocation, prioritization and decision-making withing the company. By bringing impacts to a common denominator language in money terms - monetizing impacts - organizations have a new tool to identify and quantify the ways their business activities show up throughout the entire value chain. By using a common language, impacts can be prioritized more easily. Not only this, the exercise forces debate. It presences aspects of business impacts that have previously never been considered. Just having a conversation about externalities in your organization is an interesting first step, and the process of evaluating them, even moreso. Through debates such as these, leading edge companies are now starting to change the game. In our favor. 

To remind you, Kering was, I believe, the first organization to publish in what was thought to be a very bold move, the Environmental Profit and Loss statement of one of its companies, PUMA, back in 2011. (See a great infographic about the value of the EP&L on the Kering website) Marie-Claire Daveu promised that the EP&L for the entire Kering Group would be published soon. The EP&L now can be used to compare and reprioritize impact and risk management across the entire Kering group of companies, using the same tool.

The EP&L created quite a  stir in its day with many hailing it as the new way forward for corporate disclosure. Although many were impressed, there were also many questions. Is it reliable? Does it make sense to put a price on the environment? Is it accurate? Does monetization devalue the true impacts of business? Like, can you put a price on caring? 

We have not seen too many companies follow suit and take the leap into externality costing and disclosing the results. Partly because it is rather a complex exercise. And if you think monetizing environmental externalities is tough, then social externalities and their far-reaching impacts are even tougher to assess. And disclosure is a risk. WBCSD maintains that we will only ever be able to know the true cost of business if we make progress in understanding, assessing and accounting for these external costs, and is encouraging its members to make bolder moves in this direction. That's the essence of "redefining value", one of the strategic priorities of WBCSD in the organization's Action2020 program. The sustainability leaders in our panel discussion believe the process of externality costing adds real value.

Masisa is a company with a strong passion for sustainability and a vision through to 2050.

Masisa publishes an Annual Integrated Report and in 2013, for the first time, published monetized impacts.

Roberto Salas described one approach to externality costing on the social side. He talked about the work Masisa does in communities, considering a range of community needs and managing social development over time. His view is that, by taking a small number of social indicators, and tracking development over a period of several years, social impact will be quantifiable and correlatable to corporate interventions and positive actions. Monetization is not a one-off thing. Externality costing must be viewed as a long-term activity.

Roberto Pedote of Natura shared an important insight. Natura has not yet published an EP&L but they are working internally to develop this. Roberto made the point that the EP&L, however, is not about precision. It's about the trend that the numbers show over time, and the ability to compare the size and scale of impacts as they occur throughout the value chain. This will never be a completely precise exercise, and although it's about numbers, it's not the numbers that are most important. It's the understanding of relative weightings of different material impacts, and deep internal discussions about the accountability of the company to mitigate or improve them. As such, externality costing can be an extermely useful internal engagement and decision-making tool.

I asked the panel if stakeholders are actually asking for EP&L's? Is anyone really all that interested? The response was that, while there are not many explicit demands for this specific calculation, stakeholders are showing more interest and demanding greater transparency from companies. The requests that stakeholders make for information are often those that can be met through the work that an EP&L reqires. Doing the work on some form of EP&L accounting enables companies to respond to broader stakeholder demands for transparency in a more considered and thorough way.

I have to confess to having been somewhat dismissive of EP&L accounting prior to the session and the research I did in preparation and pre-conversation with the panelists and their teams. I had always felt that we spend too much time in analysis-paralysis and not enough time taking bold action. But, now, after engaging with such clear-thinking, driven and enlightened leaders, I am more open to hearing the benefits. As Marie-Claire Daveu, the champion of EP&L pointed out: How can you act without a tool to help you evaluate priorities in a holistic way?

While EP&L may not be everybody's double-fudge ice cream, it's a tool that seems to be helping some of the world's leading companies move forward and it's bringing the discussion around sustainable development to another level. We should probably keep our eye on externality accounting. My guess is that we will be hearing a lot more about it in the coming years.

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.  


Jordi Morrós Ribera said...

Really interesting this post, Elaine. I agree with your final guess and if the integrated reporting do not take off, or with ever strong reason if, in the worst supposition, the integrated reporting maintains their evident restrictions in offering a complete accountability for a wide range of stakeholders.

elaine said...

Thank you Jordi for your comment. I agree that the question relating to externalities accounting can develop and be managed separately from the integrated reporting movement for companies that plan to maintain separate reporting approaches. Best, elaine

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