Saturday, February 27, 2010

It's a CSR report, not a Megillah!

Tomorrow is the Jewish festival of Purim. I was wondering what lessons Purim holds for CSR reporting.
Purim commemorates the escape from anniliation of the Jews by Haman, the Prime Minister of Persia way back when. Haman's plot was discovered and avoided by Ester, the Jewish Queen of Persia. Haman was hanged and Ester who had shown great bravery in revealing the plot became a heroine. That's the short version.
The Purim story celebrates freedom from oppression of indigineous peoples, the protection of human rights, right over wrong, integrity, and the power of women to save the world. No wonder, every year, Jews around the world celebrate Purim. Purim celebrations typically revolve around several customs. 
  • The first is that everyone dresses up in fancy dress. This is an ancient custom, deriving from, as one of  the theories goes, the fact that Ester disguised herself in order save herself and her community.
  • The second is that we eat Hamantaschen - this is a three cornered pastry which commemorates the hat that Haman, the evil oppressor, wore.
  • The third is that we make a lot of noise using things called Graggers. This is usually done during the reading of the Megilla (see next custom).
  • The fourth is the reading of the Megilla. This is the story of Purim that is read in synagogues. The thing about the Megillah is that it's really long and takes forever to read. Know the expression ?  "Spare me the details, dont give me a Megilla!" 
As you can by now appreciate, the lessons for CSR reporting are clear.

  • Don't try to dress up your CSR report as something it is not. The day after Purim, with no fancy dress, you are excactly what you were before.
  • The three corners of the Hamantashen remind us to balance our report with the triple bottom line, rather than just concentrating on environment or social aspects.
  • Making a lot of noise is not what CSR reporting is all about. Your report should contain relevant material content.
  • And finally, your CSR report should not be a megillah. It should be as consise enough as possible compatible with ensuring the right information gets through.
I thought I would celebrate some reporting megillahs! Some of the  longest reports I have come accross are: 

GoLite 2009 Sustainability Report - 159 pages - GRI A+. This includes 16 appendices but there is a one-page executive summary which you can make do with after you have downloaded 27 megabytes of PDF.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters - 2005 report - this was their first report with 175 pages. (Subesquent reports are somewhat shorter!)

And then there is the all-time award-winning classic by Vodafone - a 378 page absolute Megilla - the Vodafone Group 2007 Report.

But then, making a Megillah of your report may just help it win an award, according to Spada's research on Trends in FTSE 100 Environmental Reporting published in 2008. This has been true for Vodafone and Green Mountain reports - time will tell about GoLite.

In the meantime... if you want to make a Megilla of your report, remember that people may only read it once a year, at Purim! And whist they are doing so, they will be making a lot of noise with the Graggers. Maybe, after all, it might be best to focus on material content ! Happy Purim!

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at: 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A merger of value and values

Now that I have got the hang of embedding slideshare presentations in my blog posts, I wanted to share with you the story of a non-profit merger which I have been supporting in my consulting work for the past 9 months or so. I am referring to the establishment of Leket Israel, Israel's only non-profit umbrella organization whose mission is to alleviate food insecurity through providing hundreds of food non-profits (who provide meals and food supplies directly to the needy) with a consistent supply of safe and nutritious food of all types, and supporting these non-profits through capacity building training, advice and resources. Leket Israel's operation is truly outstanding and an exemplary social AND environmental net positive impact organisation. Leket's positive Social impact comes through ensuring more people have access to basic nutritional requirements and increasing levels of food security in Israel. Leket's positive Environmental impact comes through massively reducing food waste by rescuing food and ensuring it gets to people who need it.  

The food comes from 4 sources:
  • Gleaning of agricultural fields and salvaging fruit and vegetables which would otherwise be left to rot, or salvaging fresh produce which cannot be sold from packing houses.
  • Rescuing catered meals from a wide range of venues including large catered events,  corporate dining drooms, restauraunts and even Army bases. The rescued meals are, of course, those which have not been served to the table and remain in their original catering packing.
  • Collecting unsalable manufactured food products from food manufacturers and importers - these are typically products which are close to sell-by date but risk reaching expiry date by going through the regular supply chain to groceries, or products which have wrong labels or similar issues which don't affect the quality of the contents. 
  • Operating a collective purchasing program, whereby food non-profits can purchase food (which they will distribute to the needy, to supplement donated food) as part of a collective operation run by Leket, and achieve up to 30% in savings versus regular food purchase prices.
Leket Israel employs around 70 staff and engages tens of thousands of volunteers each year in the gleaning program and food rescue collection and distribution (much of which is at night time). In 2009, the combined organisation  provided over 10 million meals in this way. That's one meal per day every day for over 25,000 people suffering from food insecurity. That's over 12 million lbs of food which would otherwise have become carbon-emitting organic waste.

At the beginning of 2010, Leket Israel was formed through the merger of two organisations, which you can see in the following presentation :

Back in 2006, I had the privilege of consulting to one of the merger partners ("Leket: the Israel Food Bank" - the collective purchasing arm)  (and in doing so, getting to know the other merger partner as well, "Table to Table", the food rescue arm). At this time, I supported the establishment of "Leket: The Israel Food Bank" after a year long and complex process of market research and dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders including facilitating several group discussions. I led the formulation of a comprehensive business plan which was used to secure funding for the establishment of "Leket: The Israel Food Bank" . Having completed my role, I was pleased to see the organization develop and increase its activity year on year.
During 2009, I was approached by the Chairmen of the two merger partners to assist in reviewing the viability of a merger between the two, and, if agreed, support the merger process and post-merger operational development. The result is a new organisation, "Leket Israel", bigger, better, more efficient,  and with a strong and optimistic future, as it consolidates the merger, drives synergies and significantly expands its activities. The name Leket refers back to the biblical commandment of leaving behind for the poor any grain that the harvesters’ sickles have missed.
The process of the merger is described in the presentation, so I won't dwell on that here. Suffice it to say that this is social entrepreneurship at its best. The issue of resource inefficiency in the non-profit world should not be underestimated. Non-profits, which look beyond the personal interests of the founders, or the ego of the key players, to focus on the optimal way to further a social mission, are the true leaders of this sector. In recent years there has been much talk about the convergence of the non-profit world and the business world. M&A's (mergers and acquisitions) are still a rare thing in the charity sector. I am sure that Leket's pioneering progress sets an example for many others. 

As a consultant, I have to say that this sort of work is both challenging and  immensely rewarding. The ability to work with philanthropists who are committed to a better future, visionary social leaders and  motivated and capable staff and volunteers is humbling. It remains  for Leket Israel to deliver their challenging 3 year work-plan  (supported by  a Scorecard measurement and metric process), and improve the understanding and measurement of the true scale of this organization's positive direct and indirect impacts . I am sure that, once an appropriate total measure of overall impact is established, the scale of positive contribution to society and environment will surprise even the founders.

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:  

Monday, February 22, 2010

By Gum, Its #CSR

When was the last time you removed your knees from under a table and found a blob of Spearmint Gum stuck to one of them? When was the last time your foot stuck to your newly laid kitchen flooring, due to a pink blob of Bazooka joining the two together? When was the last time you noticed a smiling teenager casually chatting to friends, stopping for a second to curl his tongue to hurl a pellet of masticated Stimorol into the distant bushes? Or the last time you went for an hour of pastoral relaxation in the local park and observed the grass lawns littered with Freedent, Orbit and Winterfresh  wrappers? When was the last time you went fishing and fished a fish whose gills were stuck together with teeth-marked Juicy Fruit? When did you last put on your favourite blouse and notice that Hubba Bubba had got there first?

If I were a gum producer, I would consider the environmental effects of gum-chewing habits as one of my most material issues. Somehow, when sticky-substance gum manufacturer Wrigley says that Wrigley brands are woven into the fabric of everyday life, I dont think this was quite what they meant. Just see what the Chewing Gum Action Group in the UK has to say about gum droppers.  More importantly, what does Wrigley say about these undesirable effects of people who chew ? 

Apparently, chewing gum offers significant benefits:  Improving Oral Health, Diet and Weight Management, Improving Focus, Contentration, Alertness and Stress Relief. Sounds to good to be true. Chewing gum never did all that for me ! Maybe I need to improve my chewing technique.

The Wrigley Sustanability Report for 2008 does indeed include a paragraph on Wrigley's initiatives to promote responsible disposal of chewing gum, and Wrigley is a member of NGO associations  which support keeping our planet beautiful, including above-mentioned Chewing Gum Action Group. Including anti-litter logos on chewing gum wrappers since the 1930's doesn't seem to have quite done the job. This issue is treated in a remarkably low profile way and seems to me to be inadequate in terms of a Company accepting true accountability for the way its products are used. Have any of Wrigley's activities actually impacted the amount of Chewing Gum litter that invades our lives? The Success Stories of the 2008 Action Group Campaign include some impressive case studies, such as one in the Test Valley Borough Council in the UK where a 62% drop in chewing gum drops (deliberate pun) was observed, though this begs the question of how long this improvement can be maintained. It also seems like a bit of a drop in the ocean (yes, another pun).

I was wondering what creative ways Wrigley could develop to encourage a long-lasting sustainable system for responsible gum disposal:

Recycling: yes, recycle your gum. Wrigley could wrap gum in reusable wrappers so that you can pop your gum into your pocket and whip it out the next time your jaws have the urge to reactivate.
Upcycling: Wrigley could develop a side business of hardened-gum-based products - such as cell-phone casings, laptop shells, shoe soles, lighting fixtures etc
Culture: Wrigley could commission an exhibition at the Tate of gum-art using only chewed gum. Gum lovers would flock in their thousands to admire the exhibits (and create more on-the-spot)
Sealant product line: Wrigley could make a range of products using gum for sealing purposes for application with car tyres, car radiators, water pipes, leaking roofs etc.
Defence systems: Wrigley could offer used reinforced chewing gum in the manufacture of air-to-ground missiles for use against aggressive land forces.
Space exploration: Use of chewing-gum based shells for space shuttles for planetary discovery missions.
Child care: Innovative application for releif of hyper-verbalism in the under-10's  (attach to lips of kids and hold shut for 3 minutes). Works also for CEO's.
Gastro-intestinal problems: Diarhoea releif. Take a hardened blob of chewing gum and stick it .... oops, enough said.

Wrigley could also become pioneers of sustainable gum innovation such as Swallowable Chewing Gum, or Self-Destructing Chewing Gum, or Chewing-Gum-that-turns-into-Dollar-Bills-after-300-chews.

Whatever method Wrigley decides to adopt to ensure that the inevitable consqeuences of its core business contribute a Net Sustainability Gain (see previous post:)), I would like to think that it is s more than Wrigley does now, which seems to be a little, well, half-chewed.  

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:  

Saturday, February 20, 2010

CSR leaders or hypocrites?

Martin asked the questions on Twitter. "What do you think of alcoa? hypocrite? trying to do the right thing? CSR leader?" and of course I can never resist a direct invitation to respond.

I was in the middle of writing my response to this post by Amelia Timbers to which he referred, but my reply was getting rather long, so here it is in full uninhibited Reporting Blog style.

Amelia described how the Aloca Company is a great CSR communicator, progresses great CSR programs and appears to be doing all the right things, with the exception of a highly criticized smelter build in Iceland which apparently was in conflict with good environmental practice. Amelia says: "The reality is that, even at its cleanest Alcoa still may be a top polluter.", and that we should give them credit for trying. 

I admit that I didn't know too much about Alcoa, it's not one of the Companies or sectors I track. However,  Amelia's post could be written about many Companies that are advanced in CSR practices and communications, but, are apparently not perfect. If the only way to achieve no impact is to stop doing business, then we are being unrealistic about what CSR and sustainability means. What we should be aiming for is a business which delivers more benefit to society via its core activities than the damage it does - e.g. a Net Sustainability Gain. Unless we are all prepared to go back to being cavemen (and women), (come to think of it, Fred and Wilma seemed to have a great ole time), we will always have industry which pollutes, uses non-renewable resources and creates inequal economic and social benefits. Even the best of social and environmental life-cycle thinking will not eleminate all the direct impacts of all businesses.

Of course, there are no good tools to calculate the NSG (Net Sustainability Gain) (this is my term - you saw it here first ! - good - eh ?) of a Company, so all we can do is make a judgement. Amelia refers to the many awards and high places in sustainability rankings that Alcoa has won, questioning whether this could be an indication of their  CSR standing relative to other Companies. But I have long since maintained that sustainability rankings serve the rankers more than the ranked. They are all positive, in  that they highlight some aspect of sustainability performance and serve to drive awareness and competitiion for higher ranking. but by and large, they do not give us a balanced or complete picture. The only ranking from which we can hope to gain true insight  is the calculation of a Company's  total Sustainability Impact and the advances it is making to improve this, against its own performance. It is not for a business to legislate itself out of business. If aluminium, or tobacco, or alcohol, or gambling  or defence systems are inherently undesirable or unsustainable businesses, Governments should outlaw them. Until they do, what we can expect of such businesses is to do what they do in a way which maximises their contribution to society and their NSG. (Net Sustainability Gain). The methodology for making such a calculation sounds impossibly complex, though some basic tools exist, such as the GRI performance indicators, SROI tools and so on. But no combination of these today goes quite far enough to bottom out all Sustainability Performance impacts into one multiple bottom line equation which is meaningful in any way.

You can read the Alcoa 2008 Sustainability Report online. Alcoa has reported on Sustainability since 2003, both at global and individual country level. They conduct Stakeholder Engagement panels and report openly on the feedback they have received. They give voice on their website to over 70 employees of different levels and regions. They have gone from 2% women senior executives to 14% in 10 years. They have reduced absolute carbon emissions by 36% since 1990, and significantly reduced absolute levels of energy and water consumption. Yes, they seem to be doing a lot of the right things and getting a lot of the right results. But, yes, producing aluminium cannot be done without taking something from the planet. Just as none of us can live without doing the same. (Unless, perhaps, we are Fred and Wilma).

As a consultant, I work with many types of Companies and sectors, including those who are not the sexiest or the most obvious in terms of sustainability. It's sometimes a challenge. But, for me, a Company who demonstrates year after year a commitment to dialogue, accountability and transparency, in pursuit of its own NSG (Net Sustainability Gain) improvement, and delivers tangible measurable results, earns my respect.

Thank you to Amelia for the inspiration for this post, and to Martin for inviting me to repond. Got more than you bargained for, huh?

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:  

Friday, February 19, 2010

7 Reasons CSR consultants should use social media

I have been asked to give a talk to a Forum of CSR consultants about why CSR consultants should use social media in order to ... well.. become better CSR consultants. I thought I would do a little test. I have prepared and posted my presentation to Slideshare, and it will be interesting to see how many CSR consultants who attend my talk will have picked it up before the talk. Should I make a little wager with myself? Hmm, I will guess no more than 10%. Otherwise, what would be the purpose of me going to talk to them? Duh!

Anyway, I apologise for the rather self-congratulory nature of the content, but the easiest way to give examples of how social media adds value for CSR consultants was to give examples from my own activity, because I find social media enriching, rewarding, educating, entertaining, (time-consuming), (addictive), challenging, enlightening, fun and always adding value to the knowledge, awareness, insights, information and service I can bring to my clients. I have taken real recent examples from my #csr life on social media, and included tweets, facebook and other conversations. I would like to thank all the unwitting partners in my social media engagement for providing me with material for this talk, and hope they will retroactively grant me permission to use their stuff in my presentation.

Here is the presentation.

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

GRI Reporting Levels 101

You have decided to report. A first report. You have made a preliminary decision to report in line with GRI Reporting Application Levels. Then you have to decide:  declare a reporting level or not declare a level or just state that your report is in the "spirit of " the GRI? What's the difference between all these and why is it important? How do you make the decision for your Company? And how do you, as a reader of reports, view the ways Companies choose to select levels.

For the lay reader, this may all be gobbledygook. Or gookygobble. Or simply gooky. What the lay reader wants is a good reflection of the Company's sustainability practices and impacts, in language s/he can understand, in as comprehensive way as possible without including next week's shopping list. Whether the Company has responded in full or in part to indicator EN27 or clause 4.9 or LA5 is really not significant. If the report communicates well, is complete and credible, the lay reader will not discern the nuances of GRI reporting adherence. I suspect that 90% of readers are lay-readers. But that's just a very wild guess.

So why all the fuss about Reporting Levels?
Wait .. not so fast ......

A quick explanation of reporting levels:
The GRI Framework includes 42 background company profile etc blurb disclosures and 79 Performance Indicators in 6 categories (economic, environment, human rights, labor standards, product reponsibility, society) Download here a one page crib-sheet of all the indicators.

A level: This is the most transparent level of reporting.This means the Company responded in full to all the indicators in the GRI G3 framework, including any relevant published sector supplements. In addition, the reporter must include an index of the GRI framework, indicating where the reader can find the information for any specific indicator.  There is a small loophole: If a reporter decides not to disclose on a specific indicator, or doesn't have the full data available, then an A level can still be claimed if the reporter explains why there is no disclosure and offers some sort of intention to disclose in the future eg. We have not yet fully calculated our carbon footprint, but we intend to do so by 2015. In theory, one could claim an A level report by disclosing absolutely nothing and promising to do so years hence. In practice, though, different Companies do skip certain indicators, but these are only a few per Company. 

B level: This is a reasonable level of transparency. This means that the Company has disclosed all the Company profile blurb required by the first part of the GRI Framework and has selected 20 of the 79 additional indicators with at least one from each category.Sector supplements are not mandatory at this level. SImilarly, non-disclosure is acceptable if there is a good excuse explanation. An index must be included as for level A.

C level: This is hardly transparent at all. The Company must disclose 28 of the 42 profile disclosures, and 10 of the 79 performance indicators. This is so not a stretch that its suitable only for first time, small business reporters only who want to get on record that they have reported, demonstrate that they are thnking in the right way about sustainability, and provide a basis for future more ambitious reporting. An index must be included as for Levels A and B.  

(At all these levels, reporters may include external assurance and earn a + (A+, B+, C+). But dont get me started on assurance .....).

Undeclared level: This could be any of the above level of transparency. The reporting Company is unsure of the reporting level or for whatever reasons doesn't want to state a level (perhaps someone (like me) might check ). Instead, the Company includes a GRI Index and notes where everything is in the report.

"In the spirit of" level: This is "in the spirit of" transparency. This is a Company who says, OK, everyone is using the GRI so we had better do so too. But we really can't be bothered doing all the work of checking that we have responded to a list of indicators, and we really don't think the GRI Framework is all that big of a deal, so let's just say we were inspired by  the GRI, and everyone will think we are great. I call it the pot-luck level, as you never know quite what you will find in a report written in the spirit of the GRI. Also, there is usually no index.

Good. Now we have got all of that clear, how does a Company select the reporting level?

Six Commandments

Commandment One: Thou shalt not report at a level for which you do not haveth data.
Check your inventory of information. Work up the scale. Enough for C? Enough for B? Enough for A? If you have answered no to any of these questions, check whether you are close. In some cases, with just a small stretch, you may be able to get data for a couple of indicators wihtout too much additional effort.

Commandment Two: Honor thy bosses, so that your days may be long in the Company that thy worketh in.
In other words, check what level of disclosure your bosses permit. 
 You may have information, stories and data, but the bosses may not be all that comfortable just yet with sharing it with the world. Transparency is sometimes a little hard to stomach for some managers. Yes, there are actually people in business who don't believe that sooner or later a lack of transparency won't catch up with them.

Commandment Three: Thou shall not covet thy neighbours reporting level
There may be good reasons for reporting at a lower level,  You might wish to report at a lower level that you are capbable of, in order to leave room for the perception of improvement next time (!), or because you are not entirely sure of the way you might want to report your data long term, and perefer to leave some room for manoevre (especially if you are a first time reporter). Remember that you can declare a level and still report more than minimum number of indicators. Also, as a first time reporter, the energy that delivering the report will require may not leave much for doing an excellent job on aligning your indicators. So, you might prefer to reduce the challenge first time around and focus on content.

Step Four: Thou shall reporteth at a level no lower than what you dideth before. 
Each report must maintain or exceed previous reporting level.Forwards, not backwards. Didn't Einstein have a theory about that ?

Step Five: Thou shalt remain true to thine  soul.
Check who you are. If you are a major global Company who has been reporting for years and years, sticking at C or undeclared level is not all that impressive. Might as well just bite the bullet and go for an A.

Step Six: Thou shalt not existeth in a vacuum.
Check what your closest competitors are doing. If they reported A then you better report A. Right ?

Finally, when all is said and done, who really notices ? Often the reporting level is not about how truly transparent the Company is or wishes to be, but about market leadership and reputation and other external factors. A leading Company reports at A.  A mediocre Company reports at C.  (first-timers excepted). Or so it seems. Companies perceive A, B and C as a grade of their Company, not of their transparency. Which might be a good thing, actually. This leads to a kind of race for a transparency ranking which, whatever its motivation, is positive.  In the next revision of the GRI framework, either the GRI will eliminate Application Levels, or it will have to add a few levels higher than A so that more Companies can demonstrate higher levels of leadership (I am taking out a patent on that idea).

Finally , ok, final finally, what is more important than your A, B, C, U or Spirit report is what you actually tell your stakeholders and how comfortable with transparency your Company is. It's ok to take some time to build transparency, though preferably you will achieve A level transparency before the Apocalypse.  (Apocalypse = the date when B&J stop manufacturing Chunky Monkey).

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at: 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Another defining initiative

I retweeted the announcement of the publication of a new Sustainability Report, because I always retweet announcements of Sustainability Reports. This was the (re)tweet:

Who on earth is Grays Harbor Paper? I thought to myself. Who knows! I answered myself. Can't you find out? I asked myself. OK, let's take a look, I replied to myself. Smiling. At myself. Don't  you do that ?

I am glad I took a look because this is a super report of a small privately owned Company with 231 employees, and clearly constructed with care, charm, creativity and commitment. (Alliteration, learnt that back in second Grade. Just call me Shakespeare). It has many of the signs of a first report (no material focus, no meaningful stakeholder engagement discussion, direct impacts only, lowish transparency) but it's one of the pleasantest first reports you can find.  Gray's Harbor Paper Plant, based in Hoqiam (check out their video if you want to know how to pronounce Ho-key - am) tells the story of  a fate-defying turnaround business, saved from closure by a local knight in shining armour, who continues to act as the benevolent lord of the county by displaying true community spirit and taking care of the local heritage and people. The report projects pride of achievement  (we made it in the face of adversity type of thing) and never strays from the party line. All technical or bordering-on-technical terms are explained in layman's language for members of the local community (the ones who didn't grow up in the paper mill).  A couple of anecdotes add a human touch to the report such as Grandma Ford whose grandson is third generation on the mill floor and Ocean Protein who micht have had to shut up shop had it not been for Grays Harbor Paper helping them out with waste treatment facilities. Environmental data is well covered and this small business is undoubtedly  sharp on its environmental commitment, manufacturing  using their own renewable biomass-powered turbines for energy, and 30% post-consumer recycled pulp for paper manufacture. (oops, that sounds like 70% virgin pulp). The report design is fabulous!

I found myself wondering just how much Grays Harbor Paper could have included in this report but chose to leave out. But maybe that's just me. What is apparent is that GHP is a small business with a big vision and, rightly so, proud of what it has accomplished. Their first report can be forgiven for being a touch self-congratulatory, because this Company sets a positive example for many other small businesses. If this Company can deliver a high-quality report such as this. then any 200+ people Company should be able to. President and Saviour Bill Quigg says in his opening remarks that this first Sustainability Report is "another defining initiative". I like that phrase, and I believe it to be true as far as reports are concerned. A Company who has reported, no matter at what GRI Level, can never go back. However cautious a Company's entry into the journey of transparency, the first step inevitably leads to more steps. I hope that more SME's will decide to have defining initiatives.

I wonder if my first ever Chunky Monkey was a defining intiative? 

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:

Friday, February 12, 2010

What NOT to call your CSR report

CSR Report.
Sustainability Report.
Corporate Responsibility Report.
Corporate Citizenship Report.
All of these titles for your Sustainability Report are BAD.
Call them anything other than that.

Because these titles are evidence of zero thinking about the underlying material differential competitive advantage of your CSR program and the report that should reflect it. A CSR report is your Company's sustainability story. It should be anything but what we think of as just another boring report, full of statistics and data Although many of them are just that. Your CSR report should be as inspiring as your CSR activities themselves (assuming they are) ( If you don't have an inspiring and authentic CSR program, you are probably not ready to write a report. Just post your carbon emissions and conmunity contributions on your website).

So what SHOULD you call your CSR report?
In answering this question, I often think of Christine Arena's great book called the High-Purpose Company, published in 2007. In this book, Christine exposes the Litmus Test for Companies.  The concept is that a sustainable business "stands for a purpose that is greater than the product it sell or the money it generates for shareholders"(p22).  In other words, what does the Company do besides making money? This, essentially, should drive you to the title of your CSR report, because, essentially again, this is what you should be leveraging in your strategic CSR and sustainability efforts.

I took a look at the GRI Reports list.
I selected the last 40 reports that had been posted to the list (written in English). Of those 40 reports, only 7 had titles other than the BAD ones. Only seven reports have titles that SAY something about the nature of their CSR and the message the report aims to deliver. Less that 20% of these 40 reporting Companies truly exploit the strategic benefit of reporting. Take a look at the following seven report titles. Can you match the name to the reporting Company? The answers are at the bottom of the post. (Wouldn't want to make you work tooooo hard for the answers.This is a mini-quiz.)

1. Making a World of Difference
2. Creating value through innovation
3. Mobilising Development
4. Power to you
5. How are we making a difference?
6. Places that matter
7. It's about time ...

The above are from one real estate company, one travel company, two telecoms companies, one pharma company, one airport and one bank. Can you get which is which ?

Which brings me to another point. If you have taken the trouble to think through your material and strategic CSR approach, and decided to give your CSR Report a name which reflects that, then you should make sure that your content is aligned with the theme encompassed in the title. If your title is about innovation, then your report should refer back to that theme in the stories it tells. If your report is about mobilising development, then that should be evident in the nature of the content that is presented. I didnt look at the above reports in detail, so I cannot comment on how they do that, for now.

Whenever I am starting on a report writing assignment with a client, before I put pen to paper and before we decide how to structure the report, and to a large degree, what data we want to present,  I get the title right. For example, in writing the report for comme il faut, a feminist fashion Company who takes a public stand on women's issues and social justice, out of a desire to influence the social agenda,we used the title Women who Influence because that is the core of their agenda-driven mission. In writing the report for 888 Holdings, an online gaming Company, we used the title People Planet Play, a variation on the people, planet , profit theme, because their mission is to have people enjoy the game. In both cases, not one word was written before we agreed the concept and the title.

If you want to differentiate your report, if you want to write it in an interesting and engaging way, get the concept and the message clear before you start to write. Incidentally, it works well with blog posts as well :)

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:   

and here, as promised are the answers to the above report-titles mini-quiz:

1. Thomas Cook Group plc 2008-2009
2. Novo Nordisk 2009
3. Vodafine Germany 2009 Report
4. Vodafone Greece 2009
5. Toronto Dominian Bank 2008 Report
6. Sorouh 2008
7. The Greater Toronto Airports Authority 2008 

Monday, February 8, 2010

Down with Womenwashing!

Diversity .. gender equality ... advancing women in business. Anyone who has ever heard the words Corporate Social Responsibility and/or Sustainability knows that advancing women in business is a both moral obligation in the context of upholding of human rights, and a major business opportunity because, let's face it, many women are good leaders, good managers, good communicators, good listeners and good assets in any business. Note that I say many, because I wouldn't want to over-generalize. Note that I say good and not better (than men) , because I believe that an ideal world is one of equality where both men and women work in harmony, both genders bringing to the table their unique and intelligent perspectives. So why, after so many years of gender equality discussions, policies, plans, actions and efforts, are women still not making it to a decent level of representation in the general workforce of Companies, and far fewer to the Board Rooms and Executive teams? I would like to share a perspective.

I will not throw all the data at you. There are enormous amounts of data about women and how they don't achieve their rightful place in our economic landscape. You only need to take a quick glance at the Millenium Goals progress data , or at the Catalyst website, or spend a few fascinating hours reading the best and most authoritative book on the subject Why Women Mean  Business, by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland, or visit Aviva's website, to get the general picture. 

This is not to say that Companies are not doing their part to advance women. Take a look at the United Nations Global Compact website to see a toolkit of resources including a document full of all the great things that Companies around the world are doing to advance women. This is truly wonderful. However, as I am known to repeat certain mantras from time to time, I will do so again. Doing things is great, but only if they result in tangible outcomes. We can all keep busy doing wonderful things to advance women, but if women are not advancing, then apparently what we are doing is not all that wonderful.

Another element in the efforts to improve actions and accountability in this area is the transparent reporting of gender equality data in Sustainability Reports. In fact, a few months ago the GRI issued a whole supplement to the G3 Reporting Framework called Embedding Gender in Sustainability Reporting which provides very precise guidelines about what Companies should disclose related to gender equality. The guide refers to gender issues in governance, workplace, supply chain, community and in investment decisions. This is very comprehensive and requires disclosure of how much both genders are paid, trained, developed, whether they take maternity or paternity leave, use child-care arangements and more. All things which theoretically apply to both genders but actually apply primarily  to women. However, there is one big gap in this transparency disclosure requirement:

Companies are not asked to report:
  • Does the Company employ a MALE gender equality officer?
  • How many MEN have been trained in gender equality?
  • How many MEN have actively recruited and promoted women?
  • How many MEN have demanded that their teams are gender equal?
Why  is this important ? Because all the gender programs that are currently running in companies to "fix" the women problems are not working. All these fixes, which the GRI now guides us to be transparent about, are there to try to solve the practical predicaments  of women's access to work (free them up - provide childcare, make them more competent - train them, give them help - mentor them, make then feel part of the group - network them, deal with them fairly - pay them the same as men, give them career opportunity -  return them to work gradually after maternity leave, understand them - give them a place to breastfeed) , when the real problems are atttudes which prevent  true  eye-ball to eye-ball equality wherever the important decisions are made in the business. This is not happening. And all the programs to fix women are not fixing women's advancement in the workplace.

We did a study of 100 (randomly selected) Sustainability Reports to see what Companies are doing and what result this is having. Here is some of what we found:

Less than 30% of the total workforce in the Companies analysed are women and less than 10% are Board Members or senior Executives. The research shows that there are 305 separate initiatives in 82 out of the total 100 Companies to advance women, yet in those Companies where there are greater initiatives, there does not appear to be a significantly greater or higher quality representation of women.

There is no noticeable difference in the research findings relative to Company size or country of operation. We do see, however, a very slight increase in women Board members and Executives where Companies have a higher level of focused initiatives to advance women and gender equality. However, this is still minimal and the data is not strong enough to support a clear conclusion in this respect.

Automotive, Construction, Energy and Mining sectors employ the lowest percentages of women and promote women least. No specific sector stands out as employing and promoting a high percentage of women across all organizational levels.

Finally, the level of disclosure is positive as regards absolute numbers of women in the business. 99 out of 100 Companies disclose total workforce numbers, and 84 disclose percentage of women in the workforce, 96 disclose percentage of women on the Board, and 91 disclose percentage of women at Executive level. However, what constitutes Executive level may not be comparable across Companies. The actual data is this:

28%  of total employees are women
(992, 234 women out of 3,541,930 total employees in 84 Companies that disclosed numbers)
9.8% of total Board Members are women
(113 women out of 1,151 total employees in 96 Companies that disclosed numbers)
8.9% of top Executives are women
(87 women out of 981 total employees in 91 Companies that disclosed numbers)

The main ways of promoting equality are making an equality or non-discrimination policy declaration, managing diversity against specific targets, diversity training and flexible working hours.

The Company in our sample with the highest level of total female employees is a Swedish plastics Company called Nolato, employing over 4,500 people, with 70% of the workforce who are women. This figure is influenced by the high level of employees in their operations in China. In Europe, 35% of the total workforce are women.   Nolato has only 20% female representation at Board level and ZERO representation at Executive level. Nolato does not report any focused gender equality initiatives beyond a declaration of  non-discrimination. There are just 4 sentences on diversity and equality in Nolato's 84 page report, one of which states with regard to the principles of non-discrimination and equality " There is nothing to suggest that we breached these principles in 2008". All the non-female executives in this Company probably do believe that to be  true.

The second Company with the highest level of total female employees is Cathay Pacific Airlines with 60% of women on their workforce, 6% of women on the Board and 12.5% women executives. Cathay has over 27,000 employees worldwide. As with Nolato, Cathay does not report any measures to advance women in business. And, they don't advance.

Finally, one more example, BASF. BASF employs over 96,000 people, they have 22% of women in the workforce, zero on the Board and 5.7% female executives. They have in place 5 intiatives to support gender equality, and women specifically. This includes project teams promoting diversity, and a range of initiatives under the work-life balance banner, including child care, and provisions for employees returning from parenthood! BASF say "We are committed to the equal treatment of both men and women".  I suppose some are more equal than others when it comes to handing out promotions.

Finally, I think it is about time that Companies stopped womenwashing in their reporting and stopped playing around with childcare programs as a demonstration that they are advancing women. Sure, it help to have this sort of support, but it is not enough to make the difference. As Avivah Wittenberg-Cox says: It is time for CEO's to get serious about sex. 

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:   

Friday, February 5, 2010

Where's the popcorn ?

Here is an innovative CSR Report. Is it a global first ? Maybe. Except for the fact that it is Solar Century's second video CSR report. It's the only report I have seen in video format. Here it is:

It's a 22.04  minute video which talks about the Company's CSR performance.  It covers most topics that are usually included in a CSR report, following a structure which is based on the 10 principles against which the Company does business. Company people, starting with the Executive Chairman, talk through the key issues, and the report includes star-appearances from external partners such as a recycling operator and a customer and others. It's light on data, with environmental data presented in graphs on screen which are a little hard to follow and disappear rather quickly.The report specifies 5 quantifiable  targets in the area of environmental impacts reduction. As far as movies goes, it's not bad. Nice shots of photovoltaics in different settings and on different roofs and many other shots of different aspects of the Company's work and activities. The visuals certainly assist in giving us an appreciation for what this Company does and how. 

The video  is accompanied by a 30 page PDF download which resembles the kind of document we are familiar with, for better or for worse. The written document contains the data in the video and  additional information.  It's clear and easy to read.

This is clearly a sustainability-minded Company and I admit that the video, if you can spare 20 minutes to watch it from start to finish, is not a bad job at all. It offers little in the way of excitment, with a narrator that sounds a little like my GPS navigator, and no Hollywood stars or special effects (James Cameron wouldn't have been challenged), but it gets the message through and leaves you with a feeling that Solar Century is actually quite a good busines doing quite good work.

I would recommend splitting the video report into sections and offering the viewers the chance to select the bits they want to view, as not everyone has the time and the patience to watch a 20 minute marathon. In this 140 character world of micro-everything, I think Solar Century's movie-time might be better as a series of micro-movies rather than this one Gone-with-the-Wind version. 

In any event, thumbs up to Solar Century for an innovative, creative report, one in which they have clearly invested time and effort and personal involvement of a range of budding Hollywood stars.

I hope everyone doesn't produce video reports. I go through too much popcorn.

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Don't shoot the piano player

I just re-read an intersting conversation on JustMeans which was started back in May last year by Martin Smith the CEO who said:

This generated 36 comments to date and others are still trickling in. Here are my pick of the most interesting ones:

Martin Smith:
CSR reports do not work because the process of creating them is artificial

Sandra Van der Lingen:
We need to distinguish between CSR reporting as a business process and a CSR report. I think the old fashioned printed version of a CSR report is dead. CSR reporting as process however will remain a crucial component of CSR because of the accountability of a company towards its stakeholders

Joanna Hoopes:
No one reads them because they not connected to the company's revenues, only inform decision-making on a very limited basis and are about as interesting as watching grass grow. Timberland's stakeholder engagement metrics are the most relevant and progressive I've seen.

Heather Rankin:
CR reports are not well read because the target audience is small. They are not intended for mass consumption - they are generally for opinion formers such as investors, analysts, regulators, NGOs etc. The discipline of producing a CR report helps improve performance and raises the profile of sustainability issues - and the people managing them - within a company. And even though they are not widely read people often feel assured when a company produces such a report - sure, it's no guarantee of improved performance, but it's a positive sign.

Kevin Long:
I think printed CSR reports should be used as door stoppers and wrapping paper. They should all be online and could still drive accountability and improvement.

Christine Arena: If I were the CRO of a corporation (which I hope to be one day), the very first thing I would do is strike this line item from my budget. Then I'd reallocate the funds toward the research and development of future products that help solve social and environmental problems and also make the company money.

Michelle Bernhart:
CSR reports aren't Harry Potter page-turners, but they serve a valuable purpose

JoAnn Strickon:
I've never read anyone else's, but I LOVE seeing my company's CSR report. It's great to read about all of the people we have helped, and to know that I work for a company that cares about people, community, the environment... Check it out -- it's really colorful and interesting (Manpower Report)

As I re-read this conversation, I had to smile at the range of comments and how amazing it is that reporting generates such extreme viewpoints. I was busily typing another response but got blocked by the 1,000 character limit, so I decided to have my full say here, at home, in the comfort of my own blog. That's what blogs are for, right? 
It's true that I get frustrated when people say CSR reports are dead or worthless, because I spend almost all of my days helping Companies get their act together so that they can report, and helping them put together their reports, and I wouldn't like to think I am wasting my time :) What a worthless life I could be leading if everyone felt that reports served no purpose. Sigh! Fortunately, most of my time is spent in working with Companies on processes, not just writing the actual reports, and I could fill this page in a second with the added value these processes have brought to the Companies I serve including a client who attributes directly to reporting a very strong increase in turnover in a recent business activity. I always wonder if the people who denounce CSR Reports have ever really really really read a good report, or have ever  been involved in or with  a business that is writing one. Are the people who would use reports as doorstoppers really those who have personally experienced and fully understand the process of reporting?
Reporting has its place but it is not a total one-stop-shop solution for all corporate processes and communications and it is not done well by enough Companies. But it is done by many Companies and that says something about its relevance, even if the result is somewhat clumsy to start with. Over time, they get better. But to say that CSR reports do not work because the process is artificial is only true when the company CSR is artificial. To expect that you can produce a report and suddenly it's the talk of the town is naive. As I have said many times, reporting is not the communication tool, it's the platform. Reporting is not stand-alone, it's part of a total sustainability strategy which includes transparency. Your communications work begins BEFORE your report is written and it REALLY BEGINS AFTER  your report is published. Too often, when people talk about reporting, they confuse the delivery of transparency with the delivery of the report. A Company doesn't have to print and ship reports  (as the only paper consumption in a business which seems to give people a problem is that used for a CSR report - I have never quite been able to understand that) - a web-based reporting format is adequate to deliver transparency. And I have yet to discover any other process in a business which focusses the mind around a comprehensive holistic sustainability strategy as the reporting process does. If it is done sincerely and in a quality way.
So maybe what people are frustrated with is not the reporting but the performance, and the fact that many Companies report without the delivering the performance. Well, folks, what I say is what are you doing about it? Are you invested in denouncing the system, or in improving it ? Are you complaining about reports or are you talking to the Companies whose reports you preceive as whitewash, greenwash, eyewash, marcom and wallpaper? 
Some see integrated reporting as the solution. But, frankly, I think it's the solution to the wrong problem. The problem is not the reporting format. The problem is the ability of businesses to strategically address sustainability issues and seamlessly embed them into their practices. The solution is to change the way Boards and Execs think about sustainability and about their role. The reporting format is an outflow of this. Integrated reporting wont make for an integrated business, unless people read the integrated report, notice the lack of integration thinking,  and demand improved performance. Just like they can do right now with separate reporting (because the financials are available for those who want to see them). And even today, many integrated reports are just separate reports in the same binding, and not evidence of a real shift in thinking.
Killing reporting is like shooting the piano player. Get the piano tuned and the report will turn out fine. And, frankly, we will all enjoy the music a whole lot better.
elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:   

16 recently published CSR reporting resources

CSR Reporting comes in for its fair share of flack. The love them-hate them syndrome is no stranger to the CSR Report. If I were a CSR Report, I would move around with a bodyguard, just in case (whatisname from the movie with Whitney Houston would do just fine). If I were a CSR Report, I would probably need ongoing psychotherapy as I would constantly be questioning the reason for my existence. If I were a CSR Report, I would probably never get invited to the best parties. (Ok, apparently I AM a CSR Report).

But despite being something that everybody loves to hate, CSR Reports and CSR reporting (yes, there is a difference) generates a lot of BUZZ in cyberspace. Here are some of the recent star appearances of CSR Reports-ing over the first few weeks of the new decade.

Reports on Reports

CSR Trends 3
An excellent publication at end 2009 with insights about corporate responsibility reporting trends from around the world. The report is split into sections covering focus, credibility, content, performance and accessibility, and uses examples from some of the finest reports around to make the point. A very good piece of research and a well written document. You can also view it online.

CSR Report assurance of social indicators in CAC40  listed Companies by . A good review of who is reporting on what and how in Europe.

How to read a corporate social responsibility report by the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship. The BCCC says that CSR reports are intended to portray the relationship between coporations and society. This comprehensive user-guide looks at just about everything you need to know in developing a CSR report, intended to assist first timers.

Top 7 Sustainability Practices - a white paper by SDialogue. The report includes CSR / Sustainability reporting as a key practice (number 6).

Blops on Reporting 
(for the uninitiated, a Blop is a blog post - my invention. Neat, huh?)

The Value of Storytelling - by Ashley Jablow on Ashley's blop runs the theme that a CSR Report shouldn't focus just on impacts - it should tell stories. Interesting post which generated many responses - but not many stories. Ha-Ha.

 Responsible Policy by Dr Michael Groves on Accountancy Dr Groves says that a CSR report is just another piece of "corporate  wallpaper" or a "duvet hiding all manner of governance failings". Guess he's a fan, right ? But he also goes on to make some very astute points which you can read for yourself.

And a post  which neatly pulled these two together and distills the key points, called Telling the Story of Corporate Social Responsibility Reporting by Chris Jarvis at Realized Worth. Chris always cuts to the chase.  

What to report on ? How two CSR Leaders decide - by Cindy Mehallow on  Triple Pundit. Cindy, an experienced reporter, gives her advice on four ways CSR reporting can add value. Well worth a look.

CSR Reports Who's reading them and is that the point? - by Marcus Chung. Marcus, an experienced CSR practitioner and reporter asks if CSR reports are the best way to communicate. I wonder who hasn't already asked that question. 

From online CSR report to online CSR reporting - blog post by James Osborne of Lundquist. James identifies three different models of online CSR reports.

Should sustainability reporting be mandatory ? a BSR debate blog post. A good summary of the usual arguments for and against mandatory transparency following the US Securities and Exchange Commission's issue of guidelines for disclosure of climate-related risks. My take is that madatory transparency has the potential to drive major improvement in sustainability performance, through, of course, there will be ups and downs along the way. 

The CSR Reporting Journey - from PRNewswire. This is an extract from a PRNewswire guide to CSR Reporting written by Ashley Barwig and raises questions such as who is actually writing the report, what has been the point of reporting in the past and what would reporting look like if it were not the end point ? Good questions. Ashley also supplies the answers. 

CSR Goals, Reporting and Unethical Behaviours by Courtney Zegarsky on her Social Endeavours blog, who suggests that goal articulation in CSR Reports may boomerang to create unethical behaviours in the organization. Hmm. I hold a different view. Forme, one of the critical added value elements of reporting is precisely the public commitment to such goals - though if the organization is badly managed, or internally conflicted, then anything they do could be a patform for negative organizational outcomes, whatever they put in their CSR Report. Unless they use Chunky Monkey as a form of Alternative Dispute Resolution. 

10 best practices for writing a great CSR Report from This post summarized the Boston College report mentioned above. 

And then of course there were my own recent contributions In search of the perfect CSR report on the GRI Blog  and the piece by Olivia Khalili in CauseCapitalism Doing Good Only Gets You So Far. In fact, Olivia writes one of the best blogs around - you should follow it avidly, as I do.

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:
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