Saturday, June 30, 2012

Go online - save lives

When you use online tools to manage your daily tasks, you may be saving someone's life. Sound a bit far-fetched? A bit surreal? A little like bluewash? Read on.

This week, I had the pleasure of facilitating a webinar on the subject of how everyday business and household activities can contribute to a low-carbon economy. The study that prompted the webinar was conducted by the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI), performed by John "Skip" Laitner of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and sponsored by some major telco's, including Verizon. The webinar was organized by and presented the findings of this study, the bottom line being that, if we fully utilize the potential of broadband to engage in a certain set of online activities (teleworking, downloading music and books, taking educational courses, reading news, receiving online bank statements and billing and using email), in just 6 countries (U.S., France, Germany, UK, Italy, Spain), we can save 2% of carbon emissions in these countries, enough to take 55 million cars off the road.  55 million cars. That's some collective impact.

In this post, I wanted to reflect a little on the ways in which our online behavior is changing. For many, the main motivation of going broadband may not be to save the planet, but this study shows that doing more online in order to save our own time, money and endless pressure to get things done, also conserves the planet's resources.

I would consider myself an early adopter of online technology - way back in the mid 1990's, before anyone had conceived of Facebook and Twitter and many of today's online tools, I used to play bridge online at Yahoo with people from all over the world. That was just for fun. Today, I use online tools for a million other tasks, business, personal and pleasure: conference calling via VOIP; downloading books to Kindle; managing my personal and business bank accounts; reading Sustainability Reports; delivering lectures to MBA students and companies; downloading software; connecting with friends via Facebook; blogging; tweeting; learning through webinars and courses and generally staying up to date with what's going in on in the world. I work from home more and more, instead of driving to the office, and my latest recruit to Beyond Business is a teleworker.  Broadband has certainly changed my life and enabled me to build my consulting practice as a global business, serving international clients, in a way which would never have been possible in the "old" pre-broadband world. I have a broadband lifestyle because it works for me. My motivation was not green. I suspect most of us have drifted into broadbandland for the same reasons. However, for those of us who also like to be green, this new study shows that we are making a powerful contribution to a low-carbon economy. And it's not just about our own actions. There is a broader, more global effect.

By utilizing broadband, we are funding the future growth of broadband technology. The increase in uptake of broadband enables the ongoing development of technology which will provide greater opportunity, greater choice and greater positive green effects in the future. How is this saving lives? Consider this (from Verizon's online Sustainability Report):

"Each year more than 200,000 people in the U.S. die of chronic diseases that are both treatable and preventable. Among the causes of these deaths is lack of ready access to medical care, because of such barriers as distance, geography, or simply the availability of doctors and nurses. Verizon is currently deploying and developing wireless services that will overcome these roadblocks, using the Verizon 4G LTE network, smartphones, tablets and advanced video technology to enable virtual visits between patients and health care providers."

This telehealth technology is transforming access to healthcare data and services, reliability of data and the speed at which life-saving information can be transmitted to the right healthcare professionals. As we do more on line, we are helping to make these solutions possible, going beyond green and addressing real social needs. This is just one example of the new potential of broadband technology. No wonder, then, that Verizon, in the Company's recent published online  Corporate Responsibility Report, Verizon first and foremost emphasizes the "Shared Success" of  building a "truer connection between business and real social needs".

Another social cause that Verizon has put its broadband weight behind is the issue of domestic violence. One in four women is affected by domestic violence, and Verizon's Hopeline which collects no-longer-used wireless phones, batteries and accessories in any condition from any service provider to donate to victims and survivors of domestic violence - so far, Verizon has collected more than 8.9 million mobile phones. This is in addition to raising awareness and supporting education to end domestic violence, including the "Telling Amy's Story" documentary, about a young woman killed by her abusive husband, funded by the Verizon Foundation. Take a look at the vid - none of us are unaffected by tragedies such as these. 

But the power of ICT to save lives and advance social causes is not the only aspect of corporate responsibility that we should expect from telco's. Behind all of this social and environmental impact, there is a large, complex business, employing, in Verizon's case, nearly 200,000 employees, which must control and manage its own direct operations in a responsible, accountable and transparent way.

Verizon's online report shows a commitment to environmental sustainability, and a clear set of performance progress updates and new goals in the format that Verizon has adopted in its reporting for the past few years: "What we said we'd do, what we did, what we'll do next". For example, Verizon's carbon-intensity goal reduction by 2020 is 50% versus a 2009 baseline, and this includes exceeding 2011 target with a 17.45% reduction from 2010. Other goals including increasing alternative-fueled vehicles as part of the Verizon fleet to 15% by 2015, achieving 250 Smart Buildings by 2015 and expanding the Verizon Green Team membership to 10,000 employees by end 2012 (6,000 members in 2011).  Verizon's key performance indicators and metrics in all areas of Corporate Responsibility performance demonstrate clear targets and achievements in all areas.

Clearly, telco's also have other serious responsibility issues to address, such as conflict minerals, digital safety, pricing and much more. They are not perfect, and positive impacts don't cancel out negative impacts. The negative impacts must still be addressed. However, facilitating this webinar on energy savings through greater use of broadband, and researching Verizon's programs and transparent sustainability performance, as well as chatting to Verizon's Director of Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility, Chris Lloyd, prompted me to think about my own lifestyle, and the broader impact of online activities.

It seems that, the more we do online, the more we contribute to a more equitable, safer, healthier, connected, transparent society, in an energy efficient way. We even have the potential to save lives. The chances are that if you are reading this post (online), then I am preaching to the converted, so thanks for bearing with me in my online ramblings.

I think it's time for me to go and place my online order for today's ice cream. I just hope they don't deliver it via broadband. 

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)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

45 hashtags for sustainability reports

I read an interesting article on Twitter. About the use of hashtags and how they are subversively infiltrating our language. Very soon, we will greet people face to face with "Hashtag Good Morning"  or wish our family and friends a "Hashtag Happy Birthday" or respond when someone asks how we are with "Hashtag Fine". Yes, this is our new language of Twitterish. It is not confined to Twitter. It's changing the way we speak and write. Naturally, for me, as I have a very narrow view of the world - everything is related either to ice cream or to sustainability reporting - I pondered a little on the use of hashtags in sustainability reports. I don't think I have seen any reports written in Twitterish, yet. 140 character sentences and twitpic images. I might consider that for Beyond Business's next report, but in the meantime, if you are considering Twitterifying your Sustainability Report, here is the Official Sustainability Report Hashtag Lexicon, and remember, you saw it here first!

The following hashtags are grouped into three categories:
  • Simple (needs no explanation, every report has them)
  • Simple Plus (hashtags with full or partial external assurance,  which raise the credibility level of your report)
  • Complex (unusual, innovative or sector-specific hashtags which impress the socks off your stakeholders )

Simple Hashtags

SimplePlus Hashtags

Complex Hashtags

 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)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sustainability Reporting for Renewable Energy Companies

This is a rare CSR Reporting Blog guest post. I am usually a bit picky about guest posts. Very picky, in fact.  But in this case, I have made an exception, because my guest is not really a guest. He's more like family, in a business sense, that is. Joshua Basofin is the newest member of Beyond Business, the little sustainability consulting firm that makes a BIG impact.

Joshua Basofin has worked in the environmental field for over ten years as an attorney, sustainability expert and writer. Most recently he was the California Representative for Defenders of Wildlife. In that capacity, he partnered with businesses and government agencies to reduce impacts on wildlife and natural resources. He was also the Freshwater Program Manager for Environment Now. Joshua holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Environmental Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his law degree, with honors, from Chicago-Kent College of Law. While in law school, he earned a certificate from the Program in Environmental and Energy Law and served as President of the Environmental Law Society.

Joshua will be expanding our portfolio of environmental sustainability services to corporations around the world, including our current clients, with an offering which includes environmental strategy development; creation of policies, performance and procedures; environmental mapping and auditing; environmental risk assessment; carbon reduction strategies and carbon footprinting; environmental training; Green Office and Green Team support;  environmental data-collection for Sustainability Reporting and research and benchmarking in different environmental disciplines and for Sustainability Reporting.  Joshua has particular expertise in the renewable energy sector and will be serving clients in this fast-growing industry.

Here is Joshua's inaugural post:

Green from the Ground Up: Sustainability Reporting for Renewable Energy Companies

Should companies whose services make the environment cleaner publish Sustainability Reports?

The answer is a resounding YES! In addition to assisting users of energy to manage their carbon footprint through the supply of clean energy products and infrastructures, renewable energy companies, in order to assure their own sustainability, must manage their own impacts, reduce their own footprint and demonstrate social and environmental accountability. A few renewable energy companies have risen to that challenge.

Carbon emissions are at unprecedented levels and the scientific community has long reached consensus that climate change will affect our planet in drastic ways. Renewable energy companies have responded by developing solar and wind facilities. These clean energy sources help meet increasing demand and will soon replace coal, oil and natural gas generators.

Solar companies in particular are increasingly ramping up production on photovoltaic and concentrated solar power systems. Governments eager to assist this development have provided subsidies and expanded renewable energy transmission grids. With a little innovation and strategic planning, more communities around the world will receive their energy from renewable sources. But the industry faces sustainability challenges just like any other. And Sustainability Reporting is vital to its success.

For example, solar companies have submitted over 200 applications to build facilities in California’s Mojave Desert. On the one hand, the Mojave is a vast sun-drenched area, stretching across 29 million acres. It has the potential to accommodate much of this solar traffic. On the other hand, it is an intact and fragile ecosystem, providing habitat for rare plants and animals. The Mojave’s water reserves are located in scarce underground aquifers. And it is riddled with Native American and other cultural artifacts. The solar companies that carved out sites (some stretching more than 6,000 acres) in the Mojave must address these resource issues.

Additionally, solar companies face challenges in greening their supply chains. Tremendous amounts of energy, water and raw materials are used in manufacturing and building solar infrastructure. During operation, maintenance crews must frequently wash panels or mirrors to ensure maximum effectiveness. That means a lot of water. And workers use large machinery that disturbs air quality and erodes soil.

One solar company that has embraced the task of creating a sustainability strategy is SunPower Corporation. Its California Valley Solar Ranch is currently being constructed on nearly 2,000 acres of land in California’s Carrizo Plain. SunPower is an industry leader and commands much of the U.S. market share. Thus, it is no surprise that SunPower was the first of its peers to publish a first Sustainability Report for the fiscal year 2010/2011.
The report, entitled “Sustainability by Design”, is comprehensive. It lays out concrete goals in the areas of products, operations, people and communities. Under the products category, SunPower puts forward an innovative LEED-certified “poly to panel” concept to improve transparency in the supply chain and ensure that all suppliers of raw materials adhere to the same sustainability principles. This will be encompassed in an industry-wide Code of Conduct  under development in collaboration with the Solar Energy Industries Association,  covering the following categories:
  • Health and safety
  • Labor
  • Ethics
  • Environment
  • Management systems
Additionally, SunPower’s “Return, Reuse, Recycle” program guarantees that solar panels will not go to a landfill after their life cycle (25 years or more) has ended. This is a great development in curbing the company’s waste stream.

SunPower tackles resource issues head on. The report affirms a commitment to minimizing the company’s footprint, including ecological impacts like those in the Mojave Desert mentioned earlier. The company halved water use at five key facilities between 2007 and 2010 and targets to reduce this even further.  SunPower also commits to responsibly treating discharges resulting from chemical use.

Suntech, another solar energy leader and the world's largest producer of solar panels, with 20,000 employees, also published a first Sustainability Report recently. It deserves an honorary mention. Of particular interest is Suntech’s whopping 87% reduction in water use from 2002 to 2010 as well as a 90% electricity consumption reduction per MW of cell production in SunTech's largest facility in China between 2002 and 2010.

Future clean energy - photo reproduced from Suntech's Sustainability Report

Both SunPower and Suntech used the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Framework as a baseline for information disclosure -  SunPower  references the GRI, while Suntech includes a partial GRI Index without declaring an Application Level (10 indicators are reported on).

As renewable energy markets grow (according to SunPower, worldwide solar capacity reached 23 GW in 2009, the equivalent capacity of more than 40 coal-fired power plants),  regulators and the public will scrutinize renewable energy generators more and more. The industry provides a great service by replacing oil and coal dinosaurs and offsetting carbon emissions. But that is not a “get out of jail free card” on other important areas of sustainability. When a solar company’s “cradle to grave” operation has minimal impacts, it will truly be green.

Kudos to SunPower and Suntech for starting what hopefully will be more than an single ray of sunshine in the rapidly expanding solar market.


Of course, Joshua might have made a cone award to Sunpower and Suntech, but he's not (yet) been converted to ice cream (which is not (yet) a condition of hiring at Beyond Business).

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)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Paragraph 47 - translated

I didn't go to Rio+20 and by the sound of things, I didn't miss much, except for the networking (and maybe the ice cream). I have been following the superbly written and topical Earth Summit Diaries of Jo  Confino in the Guardian Sustainable Business  - his coverage was timely, comprehensive, frank, and cutting-edge.

Anyway, it's now all over until Rio+30 (unless someone decides it's not worth the effort), and this is the Future we Want. The debates about Sustainability Reporting, which were boosted by a proposal from the GRI and the Corporate Sustainability Coalition convened by the Aviva Investor Group, to drive greater mandatory disclosure by business, resulted in the following paragraph in the final document produced by the UN Heads of State and Governments, known as Paragraph 47. This is it:

"We acknowledge the importance of corporate sustainability reporting and encourage companies, where appropriate, especially publicly listed and large companies, to consider integrating sustainability information into their reporting cycle. We encourage industry, interested governments as well as relevant stakeholders with the support of the UN system, as appropriate, to develop models for best practice and facilitate action for the integration of sustainability reporting, taking into account the experiences of already existing frameworks, and paying particular attention to the needs of developing countries, including for capacity building."

This is a rough translation (for optimists)

"We, the Heads of State and Government and high-level representatives, having met at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20 to 22 June 2012, with the full participation of civil society, agree to make a general statement which supports the fact that Sustainability Reporting is worthy of consideration. We know, basically, that sustainability disclosure is the way to go, but frankly, at this time, there are other things that are a little more serious, and also, there are too many pressures from business opposing mandatory Sustainability Reporting for us to be able to make an outright commitment by our various governments to go further than offering a statement of support. But don't be fooled. The fact that we included a whole paragraph about Sustainability Reporting in the "Future we Want" is significant. It paves the way for voluntary actions by governments. Hey, look at Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa, the Friends of Paragraph 47, who have committed to making Sustainability Reporting a reality. This proves that Paragraph 47 is already having an impact and we are absolutely delighted. If they can do it, every single nation can. Paragraph 47 gives governments legitimacy to mandate Sustainability Reporting and make this our new reality. Long Live Paragraph 47!"

This is a rough translation (for pessimists)

"We, the Heads of State and Government and high-level representatives, having met at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20 to 22 June 2012, with the full participation of civil society, have decided not to decide about Sustainability Reporting because it's just not our most significant  priority right now. In order to appease some of the organizations and coalitions who have been, rather irritatingly, pushing for Sustainability Reporting to be the most significant outcome of Rio+20, we agreed to retain Paragraph 47 but heck, what did you expect? That we would suddenly start to require all businesses around the world to start inflating their Annual Reports with sustainability data? Businesses wouldn't be able to cope and governments wouldn't be able to police it. What would we do with all that data, anyway? And let's face it, we want to save the planet, not produce more reports. The frenzy about Sustainability Reporting is misplaced. Reporting will not change the world. Changing the world will change the world. However, we do recognize that there is some value in disclosure and that generally, it is regarded as a positive thing. So, we recommend that governments keep it on their radar, don't reinvent the wheel and keep the focus on China, India and other emerging economies. The fact that four governments have declared unswerving loyalty to Para 47 just shows that we don't need to make any sort of commitment and those who want, will, and those who don't, won't."

This is a rough translation (for activists)

"We, the Heads of State and Government and high-level representatives, having met at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20 to 22 June 2012, with the full participation of civil society, have agreed to make a flimsy statement of support for Sustainability Reporting. This is a good thing, It leaves tremendous scope for all reporting advocates around the world to engage in even more focused activism in order to advance transparency in business. Frankly, NGO's and business coalitions are better than us at driving this type of change. So, it's time for us to up the ante, gather all our resources and launch an all-out effort to make sure that corporations which are not prepared to be open should be prepared to be closed. Soon."

This is a rough translation (for fatalists)

"We, the Heads of State and Government and high-level representatives, having met at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20 to 22 June 2012, with the full participation of civil society, believe in leaving things to decide themselves. What will be, will be. What will not be, will not be. What might be, might be. What should be, should be. What can we, as mere mortals, mere agents of government, mere job-holders, mere insignificant blots on the global landscape with tentative mandates to serve a global order, possibly hope to do to change the script of our shared future?  If Sustainability Reporting is right, it will happen. We cannot take ownership for things outside of our control. We are powerless to change our destiny. Sustainability Reporting will, if it is meant to be, create its own destiny"  

This is a rough translation (for capitalists)

"We, the Heads of State and Government and high-level representatives, having met at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20 to 22 June 2012, with the full participation of civil society, confirm that the corporate machine is stronger than we are and that we would be foolish to coerce corporations into sustainability disclosure which could result in opening them up to scrutiny and criticism and possibly causing them to make less profit. We all know that, even though it is sexy to talk about the power of business to save the planet, in the end, it's how much profit you make that counts. If you can tick the box of Sustainability Reporting without harming your basic commercial interest, it's worth making the effort as there are are some reputational points to be gained by Sustainability Reporting (and we all know that reputation = money). But if you can't, then please know that the governments of the United Nations are not going to force you. The markets will decide. Voluntary Sustainability Reporting can be a wonderful tool to serve the capitalist movement. Why cause problems and make legislation out of it?"

This is a rough translation (for realists)

"We, the Heads of State and Government and high-level representatives, having met at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20 to 22 June 2012, with the full participation of civil society, see the world as it is. We understand the pressures, risks and opportunities. We know we are heading to a disaster for humanity unless we change our ways. We know that the greed of corporations has the potential to destroy our global well-being. We understand the inequalities in society and the vast abuses of human rights that plague our world in the name of profit and shared value. We see all this for what it is. The natural evolution of human society. As humans, we are subject to imperfections. We are as we are. Sustainability Reporting is what it is. Paragraph 47 is not perfect. What is?"

This is Elaine's translation

"Rio+20 came and went. Now, let's get back to doing what we need to do to ensure business is sustainable and transparent."
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)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Consistent creative reporting - a cone-worthy example

Every so often, you come across a company whose Sustainability Reporting is inspiring because of the creativity with which they get the message through, and the consistent delivery of high quality information. It's not so often you see an engineering and construction company deliver cutting-edge reports, but in this case, I have to award Cone Trio to Larsen and Toubro.


Larsen & Toubro Limited (L&T) is a technology, engineering, construction and manufacturing company. It is one of the largest companies in India, founded in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1938 by two Danish engineers, Henning Holck-Larsen and Soren Kristian Toubro. Both of them were strongly committed to developing India's engineering capabilities to meet the demands of industry. L&T is traded on the Indian Stock Exchange and employs over 50,000 full-time employees and over 300,000 contract workers, boasting a turnover of around $13 billion.

This was the first report in 2008



Leading with the theme of L&T's role in building Indian society, this GRI A+ Application Level Report is one of the best first reports you can find. Peppered with charmingly written short case studies, this Report shows the human face of engineering and construction.

This was the second report in 2009

The idea here, is, you guessed it, there are some conditions to our inhabitation of the planet and use of its resources. This is how they put it at L&T:

"This planet we call home is like no other in the galaxy. No other body in orbit has the cocoon of atmosphere that sustains life; nowhere else do waters flow from summit to sea, nourishing civilisations along the way. This unique, beautiful and bountiful world of ours has helped mankind flourish across time. It can certainly provide for us far into the future, but… conditions apply."

Each one of the company directors has their own space to make their own sustainability commitment and add perspective (this was also a feature of the first report). This is very good practice - it shows that all the leadership is committed, not just the CEO, and it makes their commitment public for both their employees and external stakeholders to see.

This report introduces a set of sustainability targets for a three year 2009-2012 period. Some are quantitative, others are more general, but the path is clear.

This was the third report in 2010


A more creative report, bolder in its messaging, bringing out the core elements of L&T's approach in the context of global changes and local challenges. Directors' messages, sustainability targets and clear, comprehensive  disclosures continue to characterize L&T's reporting, showing consistency in approach and in presentation of metrics.  

This is the latest report covering 2011.


This report blends continuity with another creative twist in the messaging, while remaining true to the core aspects of L&T's role in society and performance on improving impacts. Also, there is a certain maturity developing with this report, with use of case studies and visuals which are less stock and more about presenting company people and initiatives, all of which include a statement of outcome (though many of the outcomes presented are generally results - e.g. "Outcome: 200 women were provided with vocational training." This is not an outcome, this is an output, or result. The outcome is what happened to these women as a result of their having been vocationally trained.)

What's interesting is that L&T manages to achieve this performance with only 13% of female employees in 2011 - a rate which has more than doubled from the 6% in 2008, which shows progress albeit continuing underrepresentation of women. None of the executive team members are women. Think of what this company could do if it were to develop greater gender diversity :)

There are thoughts I would share with L&T for future reporting:

  • It would be helpful to have a clearer picture of the "delta" - what has changed from one year to the next,  new initiatives, key areas of progress. It would be nice to see this quickly, upfront, without having to read the whole report, section by section.
  • I would suggest tightening up the Sustainability Targets matrix. The targets have remained the same for the 2009 - 2012 plan, but the actual progress since 2009 in each area is not clear, as in each year, only partial responses are given. For example, progress against several targets is simply "ongoing".  Some of the targets themselves could be tightened up for the next 3 year period - for example, "conduct carbon footprint mapping" could be converted to a target which expresses an intent to improve footprint, not just count it. "Promote employee volunteering" could be more specific. 
  • Supply chain impacts are under-reported by L&T. As a massive business with probably thousands of suppliers, many in the company's home country, it would be nice to see how L&T is expanding its influence right through the supply chain and encouraging its supply base to engage in sustainability initiatives and find their own form of accountability.
  • I would suggest some inclusion of external and internal stakeholder commentaries. I think this always livens up reporting and adds credibility.
  • I would love to know more about what L&T are doing to encourage the advancement of women in their business. Construction and engineering may not be the most obvious choice for most women, and there are only 940 females for every 1,000 males in India,  but with almost 600 million women to choose from, I am sure there must be some executive potential there somewhere which would be good for L&T's business and society in general. L&T glosses over this in their reporting, while declaring a commitment to diversity. If there's no commitment, why say there is ?
  • Convert outputs to outcomes and report both. This is not as easy as it sounds, but it is a better measure of community investment effectiveness. Outputs tell you that the ladder is in place, outcomes tell you that it's standing against the right wall.

It is important for large companies to show leadership in sustainability performance and transparency. I think L&T do a good job... with some opportunity to sharpen up the impact of their reporting in future publications  :)

 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)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

32 quotes about Smarter Sustainability Reporting

Now that Rio+20 is well underway ... history, almost .... and after the failure of Sustainability Reporting to be presented as a clear, firm, unequivocal commitment for mandatory Report or Explain approach by all governments in the draft declaration, making the starting point for high-level negotiation rather wishy-washy, despite a few Stock Exchanges beefing up their demands via the Sustainable Stock Exchange Initiative , a Forbes article by CERES number one, Mindy Lubber, which refers to a Tipping Point for Sustainability Disclosure in Rio, GRI Chief, Ernst Ligteringen, who proclaims that Sustainability Reporting will be "everywhere" within five years",  and an announcement that the UK government will support mandatory carbon reporting , first reported, as far as I can tell, in Jo Confino's Rio+20 Earth Summit Diaries (the absolute best coverage anywhere on what went on at Rio), it seems fitting to write my very long overdue post about the Smarter Sustainability Reporting Conference which I chaired in London way back on May 15th.
In my opening remarks, I  made reference to many interesting developments in reporting at this time.
  1. The move to "Shared Value" as a new reporting buzzword
  2. The localization and segmentation of Sustainability Reporting  
  3. The increasing regulation around sustainability disclosure in different countries and in different ways
  4. The increasing place of sector reports about whole industries, and reports about major events and conferences
  5. The development of old and new frameworks that guide report content such as the forthcoming GRI G4 guidelines and the increasing uptake of ISO26000 as a report structure
  6. The uptake, or otherwise, of report assurance  
  7. The expansion of software applications to assist in collating report information  
  8. The explosion of "Life on the Internet" of Sustainability Reporting and of course
  9. The movement towards Integrated Reporting.
I asked the question: What is SMARTER Sustainability Reporting? I speculated that SMARTER reporting might just be about generating trust, a commodity which appears to be lacking in business these days.

Sabine Mosner, Deputy Director, Green Economy & Resource Efficiency, Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) gave the opening keynote about the role of sustainability reporting in building a green economy.

 "You all know that Sustainability Reporting is good for business otherwise you wouldn't be here"
Sabine referred to the newly issued governmental guidance on Transition to a Green Economy   (though apart from encouraging businesses to help consumers make informed choices through provision of information, I didn't notice any specific reference to transparency and reporting). Sabine called the current UK government the "greenest government ever" with emissions cuts of 14% and GBP 13 million saved in energy bills. She confirmed that the Government believes that Sustainability Reporting has an important role and that Ministers are currently considering regulations for carbon reporting in Annual Reports (now confirmed at Rio+20). Sabine urged that there is no room for complacency.
"We are all looking for sustainable economic growth. Good sustainability reporting by business keeps us on that track."
Next up was Andrew Raingold, Executive Director, Aldersgate Group, an alliance of leaders from business, politics and society that drives action for a sustainable economy.
"Reporting is traditionally a geeky subject".
Andrew talked about the state of play of reporting and made a pitch towards mandatory reporting, which he calls a "litmus test" for much wider issues.
"The voluntary approach has run its course".
Andrew said that everybody "gets' carbon reporting - the public want it, politicians understand the need for it, business welcomes guidance on carbon reporting - so why are we waiting, he asked? Great question, no good answer.
Lois Guthrie,Technical Director, International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) then gave an overview of what's happening in the world of Integrated Reporting.
"Reports are too long, too backward looking, too complex, to general purpose"
"We are mis-measuring our lives".
Lois made the point loud and clear that reporting has to change - it needs to be more about a process of integrated thinking, taking into account all kinds of capitals. She made it clear that Integrated Reporting is different from Sustainability Reporting  - contrary, I think to popular opinion, which sees Integrated Reports as being a move to eliminate standalone Sustainability Reports.
"Integrated reporting is not Sustainability Reporting - it should not duplicate or supersede Sustainability Reporting"
Pankaj Bhatia, Director, GHG Protocol, World Resources Institute then explained the process of developing the SCOPE 3 Emissions Standard which is a tool to improve risk mitigation and regulatory awareness. Scope 3 is often the largest source of emissions in any supply or value chain, and they often vary by sector. See this chart from Pankaj's presentation which shows that Scope 1 and 2 emissions are just a small percentage of total and different sectors have vastly different Scope 3 opportunities.
"Scope 3 emissions are a treasure map of opportunities across the value chain".
Kraft Foods, for example, found that 90% of their total emissions were in Scope 3. By helping cocoa farmers in Ghana increase crop yields and minimize use of carbon-intensive fertilizer, they can make a massive difference.  Pankaj also offered some great advice for insomniacs.
"If you have trouble falling asleep, read the Scope 3 Standard before you go to bed".

"GRI is a connecting framework"
"We are nearing a tipping point".
"The future is not a printed report - in the future, you will have a range of information from printed, to digital, to XBRL."
"There is still far too much greenwash, too many collections of nice stories, too little of commitments to the future".
"Materiality cannot be determined only in the eyes of the reporting company".
Ernst also talked about the technical quality of reporting and that it needs to be "assurable".  Oy, don't get me started on assurance.
This concludes the morning plenary and it was truly packed with fascinating perspectives. Every presenter made insightful and relevant points and sparked interesting discussion. The afternoon sessions were more about practitioner focus, with case studies from veteran and novice reporters such as Novo Nordisk, Wyndham International, Royal Bank of Scotland, Marks and Spencer, ArcelorMittal and the BBC. All offered unique takes on their way of reporting.
Susanne Stormer, Vice President, Corporate Sustainability, Novo Nordisk, hailed in 2012 as the most sustainable company on Earth, said "The awards is not why we do it".  Novo's aspiration is to set a standard for what corporate reporting looks like in the new economy. Susanne made reference to the fact that there is still no accepted standard for integrated reporting and that Novo Nordisk is doing what they think is the best way to inform and engage stakeholders, while using the reporting process as a decision making tool in their business.

"Our reporting gives a 360 degree perspective of our business - including the financials."

Susanne also made a revealing confession:
"I am a reporting nerd." 
Guess that makes two of us.
"My job did not exist ten years ago."

The drive for sustainability in the hospitality industry is significant, and new travelers are a big part of that. "Over one million travelers come to us today from BRIC markets". Not only this, but travelers are becoming more eco-conscious. "50 percent of travelers would pay more to stay in a green hotel" (based on a survey by Tripadvisor). But more than just a communication to external stakeholders, the first report by Wyndham served to create a shared approach and a common language within the organization, though not without its challenges. 
"Last year, our first sustainability report was eye-opening - it was a new concept for the financial team. They looked at me as though I were crazy."

But there were some good outcomes:

"Sustainability is a huge recruitment and retention tool".

"Some or all of the following:
  • A Victorian robot
  • Copy made with the intention of making other copies from it
  • Syndicated or ready-to-print copy, often used by weekly newspapers
  • Trite, hackneyed writing
  • The detailed standard wording of a contract or warranty
  • Not original
  • And often unhelpful – even harmful"

Not surprisingly, then, he concluded:

"Regulator and investors are not overly impressed with the current state of reporting"

Duncan Young, Head of Reporting & Engagement, Group Sustainability, Royal Bank of Scotland opened up by admitting that "RBS is not the first name that springs to mind when we talk about sustainability". Nothing like a bit of realism from conference speakers. He described RBS as "one of the most reputationally challenged companies in the UK over the past few years". However, he went on to describe the steps that RBS was taking to address these reputational challenges, including some new ways of Sustainability Reporting, especially after Climate Camp 2010 brought home the importance of engaging with stakeholders.

"More is not More."

This is the advice from Meera Pau Mehta, Corporate Responsibility, ArcelorMittal, who says you can't put everything in one report. ArcelorMittal has one of the most impressive suites of global and local reports, and issued 11 local reports in 2010.

"There is a lot of hunger for creating local reports and lack of capacity and resource."

The global HQ provides a guidance manual, templates, training, and an optional structure for a 20 page report. Some local subsidiaries use the template, some do their own thing. All, however, produce good quality local reports.
Rowland Hill, Sustainability Manager, Marks and Spencer described the M&S reporting journey and shared learnings. One of these was that "no matter how good a generic list of material issues is, it won't be fit for purpose. Expectations and material are specific to sectors."

  • 4 .............months to produce a report
  • 64 ...........average pages in a report
  • 000's .......the cost of producing a report (GPD tens of 000's)
  • 23 ...........percent of people who opened the report email announcement.
Very enlightening. I think the point was that it's a lot of work for little tangible return. Perhaps this was what prompted the BBC to experiment with a segmented approach to reporting - annual reporting on performance, mid term supplement on a focus issues and monthly newsletters. And by way of warning, Yogesh advised:
"We are notoriously bad at setting targets - we are creatively driven".
Robert Clarke, Chief Executive Officer, ecodesk gave us a live demo of the capabilities of ecodesk, which bills itself as "the world’s largest user-managed digital platform for carbon, energy, waste and water data (and a lot more besides)",  and talked of the challenges of gathering sustainability data in a coherent way.

"When you ask suppliers to complete a questionnaire with an excel spreadsheet, most organizations do not respond."
In the closing panel, which included John Elkington, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman, Volans, who is changing the language of sustainability once again with his new book, Zeronauts, Paul Scott, Managing Director, , Yogesh Chauhan and myself, I was too busy being on the panel to make notes, so no quotes!
All in all, this was one of the best conferences on Sustainability Reporting that I have attended. But, the answer to the question: What is SMARTER Sustainability Reporting?  remains elusive. Ultimately, in my view, a smart report serves to build or rebuild trust, but the recipe for that is still not open knowledge. Go where the stakeholders are, engage them and target your messages appropriately are themes which gained some support, while material focus, appropriate context and forward looking, rather than historical anecdotes, seems to be the way to go.
And the final quote, from me:
"So where did you hide all the ice cream ?"
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)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dr Sustainability is at Rio+20!

Dr Sustainability is enjoying the sunshine in Rio, where the Big Event of the sustainability calendar is taking place - the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. She just gave me a call, offering to answer readers' questions about what's going on at this important event. Here are the questions that Dr. Sustainability received and, of course, her frank and unflappable answers:

Dear Dr. Sustainability: Do I need a visa to attend the Rio+ conference?
Dear Traveler: Not unless you plan on spending a lot of money. (think about it)

Dear Dr. Sustainability: Do you expect Rio+20 to result in concrete outcomes ?
Dear Construction Worker: The concrete outcomes have already been achieved. Four new hotels were built to house the Heads of State, Heads of Companies and Head Waiters at the Rio+20 event. That's a heckuvalotta concrete.

Dear Dr. Sustainability: Will the world become more sustainable after Rio+20?
Dear Naive: Yes. Of course. Why else would they go to all this trouble?

Dear Dr Sustainability: I hear that the sustainability reporting agenda is a key negotiating point at Rio+20. Will there be a commitment by governments to mandatory reporting by all companies everywhere, as Teresa Fogelberg hopes to see?
Dear Reporter: Yes, there will. It will probably be worded something like this: "We, the governments of the enlightened world, believe that sustainability reporting has value and we would like to require incentivize recommend promote encourage suggest beg plead with companies around the globe to include think about including sustainability disclosures in their annual corporate reporting to all stakeholders."

Dear Dr Sustainability: There are some that say it would be much easier if we gave up on cooperation and watched the planet burn. I read that in a post on Treehugger. What's your view on that? Have you heard anyone suggesting we should give up on Rio+20?
Dear Firecracker: Well, everyone that I have met here believes this is a very important conference and that the momentum is building to have a coherent discussion on the future of our planet. Of course, we have been having coherent discussions for quite some time now. Momentum is a great thing, but sooner or later, it has to result in something. Otherwise, instead of sustainability, we just get momentum.

Dear Dr. Sustainability: I understand the theme of Rio+20 is called "The Future we Want". Is it all about the future? What about the present?
Dear Nitpicker: Yes, Rio+20 is focused on commitments to future action. The future starts in the present. The problem is, the future was yesterday and there are some who are getting impatient. By the time it's tomorrow, the future will already be the past and then it will be too late for collaboration. In the meantime, which I think is the present, it is probably fair to say that the future is at least as important as the past and Rio+20 needs to deliver a decisive commitment so that the past of our future will be more sustainable than the future of our past, which is now. It makes a lot of sense when you stop to think about it. Now. In the present. Before the future.

Dear Dr. Sustainability: How many people are there at Rio+20? Are they all tweeting?
Dear Tweet: There are about 50,000 people here. About 25 are tweeting at #Rio20. A few more are live-blogging. About 49,800 are networking. The rest are walking out of the negotiations.

Dear Dr. Sustainability: I have heard that the developing nations want the developed nations to pay them to be sustainable. Do you think that will work?
Dear Money-Grabber: This is technically not correct. The Developing Economies want the Developed Economies to invest money to help them do their part in creating the Future the Developed Economies Want. The Developed Economies want a future in which the Developing Economies will not interfere. In other words, they want the Developing Economies to stay Developing. But it's more complex than that. The Developing Economies want to become Developed. They want to add to the mess that the Developed Economies got us all into. They want the Developed Economies to invest in them not making a bigger mess. The Developed Economies say: He who createth the bigger mess must footeth the bigger bill. In classical literature, this is called a lose-lose situation. In business, it's called unsustainable development.

Dear Dr. Sustainability: I read that a recent poll by Globescan showed that nearly eight in ten (78%) sustainability experts believe the current economic system must be substantially overhauled and a similar percentage (77%) say that major catastrophes will need to occur before governments will act on sustainability. Are you one of the 78% of sustainability experts?
Dear Wiseguy: I did not participate in the poll. It must have gone into my spam. However, I concur with the fact that the current economic system must be overhauled. Where I am undecided is exactly what it must be hauled over. Over the heads of Prime Ministers and Presidents, I suppose. I agree about major catastrophes. A good catastrophe is always a catalyst for action. Hurray for catastrophes. What would we do without them? Apart from save on Xanax expenses. 

Dear Dr. Sustainability: After Rio+20, will I be able to sleep any easier at night ?
Dear Insomniac: Oh sure. If you destroy your neighbors' kids BoomBox. But more importantly, your great-great grandchildren will be able to sleep a  lot too. In fact, the planet will be so sustainable, they'll be bored out of their minds.

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)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The A+ Myth of Sustainability Reporting: Stop the Hype

I have just noticed the sparkling new Corporate Responsibility Report for 2011 published by ATOS, an international IT Services company, their third report. The first thing that struck me, even before I started to scan the report, was the delight and pride at Atos's achievement, for the second time, of the A+ Application Level of the GRI Framework. The Press Release is entitled: Atos Received Highest GRI Rating for its Corporate Responsibility Report. The Chairman's remarks start with: I am pleased to report that Atos has been awarded an A+ rating in accordance with the GRI standards for the second time in a row and the first in a list of 2011 key highlights is "Global Reporting Standards Recognition", which refers to the prior report's A+ rating and notes that this is: "recognizing Atos’ leadership position in the field of sustainability." Further on, in the Business Profile Section, Atos mentions its number of employees (74,000), its annual revenues ($8.5 billion) and yes, you guessed it : "Awarded an A+ by the GRI for its sustainability reporting." The "rated A+ by the GRA" statement appears again on yet another page mentioning 2011 Achievements.

The GRI Framework, as you know, offers three levels of reporting transparency - C (some disclosures and 10 performance indicators), B (all disclosures and 20 performance indicators) and A (all disclosures and all core indicators). The "+" refers to an external assurance statement. The decision at which level of transparency to report is a voluntary company decision. The GRI offers an Application Level Check which assesses whether the declared transparency level of the report actually conforms to the GRI Framework, and if so, issues a certificate to the reporting company to this effect. The wording of the GRI Statement is very clear:

Part of the GRI Statement from the ATOS report
The GRI Application Level Check is a quality assurance process, confirming whether a company has applied the guidelines in the intended and prescribed way. It is actually a very useful process. I have submitted two reports just this last month or so for a GRI for Application Level Checks on behalf of clients, and, I find that this is very helpful in ensuring rigor in preparing the report (you know from the outset that the disclosures and indicator responses will be scrutinized in detail) and in picking up issues which may have been overlooked, such as an incorrect page number in the Index, or a missing piece of data against one of the indicators. For new or inexperienced reporters, I am sure the GRI Application Level check also picks up some very significant omissions. I have spoken often about the quality of reporting - which is critical if reporting really is to become mainstream - and adhering to a selected Framework in the correct way is one part of delivering a quality report. The issue with the GRI Application Level Check is of course that it is only evaluates a small number of indicators and disclosures and is therefore not a comprehensive quality check. However, it is a worthwhile process.

Back to ATOS and the deliriously happy way in which they present the achievement of the A+ level as "recognition for sustainability leadership". Is the achievement of an A+ reporting level "sustainability leadership"?

In the GRI Reports Database for 2011, there are currently 2,802 reports, of which 68% declare an Application Level and 17% of the total number of reports declare an A+ Application Level (472 reports). Of these 472 reports, 248 (52%) are checked by the GRI and have received the GRI Application Level Statement.  Does this mean that 248 companies in 2011 are "Sustainability Leaders"?  Is conformance to the GRI Framework a reasonable measure of this leadership?

I am reminded of a whitepaper published earlier this year by BrownFlynn and CSRHub , entitled: "GRI Application Levels: Why Strive for an A". The PR about the study says: "The study demonstrates why companies with a higher Application Level are better able to manage their sustainability impacts, and provides evidence of a correlation between a company’s GRI Application Level and its reputation for sustainability performance. The study also clarifies the confusion around differences between Application Levels." Excuse me (or not) for being critical, but this contention requires a massive leap of faith, and this whitepaper, in my personal view, may encourage the type of thinking that puts more emphasis on the reporting level than on the report substance.

This is the conclusion of the whitepaper: ".. we conclude that a GRI Application Level can serve as a proxy for sustainability performance management and that a company looking to improve its sustainability performance should strive to achieve an Application Level B or higher."  While I fully agree that transparency is a catalyst for performance improvement, I am not convinced by the correlation put forward by this whitepaper. The conclusion is based on two main assertions:

First: that the GRI Framework has "implicit quality controls" : This is what the whitepaper says: "GRI subtly influences report quality through the specificity of the required disclosures. Although the Application Level is not downgraded when a company gives less information than the protocol requires, GRI is certainly not silent on the issue of report quality. GRI writes specific questions, encourages the use of third-party assurance, and then leaves it to the stakeholders to review the quality of the company’s disclosure." Well, errrrrrrrr, the GRI IS silent on the issue of report quality. There are no "implicit quality controls". The GRI provides guidance on how to respond to the performance indicators. That's it. A large cross-section of reports, I regret to say, do not apply these guidelines correctly at the declared levels, and even those checked by the GRI are only partially checked. The GRI offers a bonus "+" for third party assurance, which, in many cases, is hopelessly inadequate and does little to contribute to the quality of disclosure.

Second: that disclosure at Level A or B is evidence of "stronger sustainability performance". The whitepaper states: "A-Level and B-Level reporters disclose their policies, procedures, management approach, training strategy, goals and internal controls, whereas C-Level reporters do not. The conceptual differences .... predict that a company with well-defined sustainability training, goals, policies and controls in place is likely to have higher-quality data and risk management structures and, thus, demonstrate stronger performance. The CSRHub scores support this claim." I find this unconvincing. The GRI Framework is about consistent transparency of sustainability practices and results, not specifically about the quality of performance. The fact that a company discloses that is has a system in place for managing sustainability does not necessarily mean that it is performing any better than another company that does not disclose this information. The correlation of reporting levels to CSRHub scores is also a bit of a black hole for me. The whitepaper says that the CSRHub score, which is an aggregate of several external rankings, is higher for A Level reporters than for, say, C level Reporters, the difference being 57.4 versus 54.9 on the CSRHub scale. I have no idea what this means. How many A, B or C level reports were analysed is not disclosed and what a difference of 2.5 points actually means in terms of the quality of sustainability performance is opaque.   

Clearly, there has to be a correlation between transparency and sustainability maturity and performance quality. Clearly, a company performing well in sustainability has more extensive material that is relevant for inclusion in a Sustainability Report. Clearly, such a company may choose to report at the higher level of transparency. Even, and yes, I agree, companies use the GRI Framework as a form of benchmark to help them determine the sort of sustainability program they want to put in place. In this sense, the more extensively they adopt the Framework, the more their sustainability performance will mature and their ability to be transparent on a wider range of issues will be more significant. In our Global Transparency Index methodology, which measures the Website Transparency of the largest 25 companies in different countries,  more weight is given to A Level Reporting than B or C level Reporting. Transparency is a reflection of performance at some level.

However, this is a far cry from maintaining that disclosure at Level A or B is proof of "stronger sustainability performance".  You can be transparent and have rubbish carbon emission levels. You can be transparent and have 1% of women in management. You can declare GRI A Level and report on hardly any of the meaningful, material indicators by selectively navigating the GRI Framework. You can get a GRI A Level certification through good fortune that the inadequate indicators have not been picked up in the GRI Check. You can perform fabulously in terms of sustainability and choose not to report in line with the GRI Framework, or declare an Application Level.

Let's keep a sense of proportion, folks. The GRI Framework is a critically useful tool and has undoubtedly helped many companies develop their performance and their transparency in a consistent way. I am a  GRI supporter and recommend its use in all reports I write for my clients around the world. But let's be clear: an Application Level is not an "award", it is not "recognition" and it is not evidence of "sustainability performance leadership". Let's not advance this kind of thinking.

Instead, what will be more helpful, with the upcoming introduction of the GRI G4 guidelines, will be  the abandonment of a transparency "rating" for sustainability reports and the adoption of a more objective descriptor of  report transparency. For example: if there are core indicators, sector indicators and optional indicators, a report could be classified in terms of the percentage of disclosures and indicators it responds to in full.

In the case of the ATOS report, with whom we started out in this post, this is the situation:
  • The report is written in accordance with the G3 framework (not 3.1)
  • All Profile Disclosures are disclosed in full  with one exception.
  • Management Approach Disclosures are all partial, except for Product Responsibility.
  • The report does not disclose in full against 59 of the 79 performance indicators (75%).
  • The report does not disclose in full against 36 of the 52 CORE indicators (70%).
  • There are zero full disclosures in the Social (SO) category of indicators.
  • One indicator (PR9) is not disclosed because it is "proprietary information.
  • 27 indicators are not disclosed because the information is "not available".
  • 18 indicators are not disclosed because they are "not material".
  • EN29 and EN30 are not even included in the GRI Index - which is a clear error.
  • ATOS adds 13 indicators under the heading AO. This is not explained - and I assume it is Atos own-generated indicators ? - it doesn't match the GRI Airport Operators Sector Supplement which has  AO prefixed indicators.
  • The GRI Index in the report does not contain page numbers, only section headings, making it difficult to locate responses to indicators.

As you can see, it is possible to get this highest A+ "accolade" without actually disclosing much of the information required in the GRI Framework, and without necessarily making a stretching step-change in performance. 

So let's stop this "strive for an A" hype and concentrate on advancing sustainable business and a fair, balanced, material and transparent reflection of performance.

Apologies to ATOS for picking on this report to make my point, as, in other respects, the report appears to have been prepared with a high level of rigor and evidence of good process. Also, this post should not be construed as a criticism of the CSRHub data aggregation - just that in this specific case, I was not convinced of the conclusions drawn in relation to Reporting Levels as a predictor of sustainability performance or leadership.


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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