Monday, June 29, 2020

ESG Reports. The new gimmick?

Anyone in the sustainability reporting world cannot help but have noticed the trend towards ESG Reporting we have been witnessing in the past year or so. ESG is the term of choice for investors apparently, and therefore, if you do not report on ESG rather than plain old sustainability or even plainer older CSR, then apparently, you are also plain and old, and unattractive to investors.

I know that I harp on quite a lot about sustainability disclosure becoming the new toy-tool of financial analysts, serving money markets rather than real people and people's lives, but this move to ESG disclosure, ESG indicators, ESG reporting, ESG Everything (please Ben & Jerry's - do not bring out an ESG flavored ice cream) is rather disappointing. I can overlook Integrated Reporting as a tool that helps companies include sustainability information as part of the way they create (financial) value, but sustainability reporting was always about impacts, not financially material impacts that help stock-owners and investors decide how to make more money, but real-life impacts that affect you, me, human beings, animals, all of us on the planet and the planet itself. When did the core values that drove sustainability and sustainability reporting get lost on Wall Street and other financial hubs? When did we start to care about the planet only if it represents a climate-related financial risk? When did reporting managers start to wear dollar-tinted glasses instead of real-life lenses?

So what exactly is an ESG Report and how does it differ from a Sustainability Report except in its name? And with ESG reporting, have we seen a switch away from stakeholder disclosure in favor of add-on financial disclosure? Is this just the new gimmick of the day? It seems to be getting farther away from the true sustainability agenda, just when 181 U.S-based leaders of large corporations committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders in the new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation from the Business Roundtable.

Of course, I couldn't resist taking a look. Let's start with a small company that most of you have probably never heard of: Walmart. 😁 In the 2019 ESG Report, Walmart makes the point: "This ESG Report responds to stakeholder requests for a more concise and focused view of our priority topics — how we define them and the long-term strategy to manage them; our aspirational goals and targets; and progress to date."(page 8).

Walmart's first ESG Report for 2019 follows the 2018 Global Responsibility Report, which was published annually since 2009. Prior to that, the report archive shows a "Sustainability Progress Report" and before that, two "Ethical Sourcing" Reports.

A key change is the weight-loss (haha, wish I could do so well losing weight): the 2018 report was 232 pages (including the GRI Content Index) while the 2019 report is just 95 pages (excluding the GRI Content Index). Apparently when you talk ESG you say a lot less than when you talk responsibility!

Report structure:
2019: Four core sections: Our Approach and then one for each E, S and G. There is an additional section grouping metrics called ESG Data.
2018: Five core sections: Welcome, Opportunity, Sustainability, Community, Governance. These are followed by a summary of ESG Priorities and the GRI Content Index.

Aside from the words, not too much has changed. Sustainability has become Environment, Community has become Social and Governance stays Governance. But in moving to ESG, the report has lost a section called Opportunity! Unfortunate, maybe?! Although not really, because the content in this section has been moved to the Social content of the 2019 ESG Report. Same content, different place.

But some new language? See this opening paragraph from the Chief Sustainability Officer (red highlight is mine) from the 2018 and 2019 reports:

2019: "Business exists to serve society. For Walmart, this is true in many ways: providing customers with convenient access to affordable food and other products; employing associates; helping suppliers grow their businesses that in turn employ others; generating tax dollars that help support community life; providing a return to shareholders."
2018: "Business exists to serve society. For Walmart, this is true in many ways. We’re providing customers with convenient access to safe, affordable food and other products, creating job opportunities for our associates; helping suppliers grow their businesses that, in turn, employ others; and generating tax dollars that help support community life."

Now, to be fair, in both reports there is a section entitled "Our Approach to ESG" and they are exactly the same in both reports .. with the exception of a date or number update here and there.

Shared Value from Walmart in the 2018 Global Responsibility Report (page 7), same text as in the 2019 ESG Report
In general, I can't see any major changes in content, except that the 2018 Report is much shorter. This is in part due to the omission of several case studies - we all know that investors and analysts are so busy that they do not have time to read stories or look at anything that does not contain a number. So helpful and interesting content in the 2018 Report found no place under the ESG banner.

Finally, the other big difference is the use of color. The 2018 Global Responsibility Report is bright, colorful, optimistic. The ESG Report is a little more "formal" - blue on white with images and icons. See the different ways, in the governance sections, that Board Composition is represented:

Board Composition in 2018

Board Composition in 2019
Bottom line: While Walmart may be saving time and energy in delivering the new-style weight-conscious ESG Report, nothing of substance has changed, only moved around or omitted. I suppose that's what concise and focused means. I guess.

Got time for another one?

Here is one that represents a change not in name only.

Alliance Data published its  2019 ESG Performance Report, following its 2018 Sustainability Report  and several prior years of "CR" reporting. And the difference is quite interesting. In fact, it could be two different companies (except for the fact that the materiality analysis from 2017 has not changed - apparently the move to ESG did not affect material topics!)

As you can see, Alliance Data goes from multi-color to monochrome and from design creativity to design minimalism - all the while thinning down the report from 78 pages in 2018 to 21 pages in 2019. The 2019 ESG Report "references" GRI and SASB disclosures, while the 2018 Report was prepared in accordance with GRI Standards (core).

Report structure:
2019: Two core sections: (1) Management Approach Disclosures describing policies and programs and brief updates across 10 topics (which broadly represent the topics listed in the Materiality Matrix, although clustered slightly differently) and (2) ESG Data tables covering three years of activities and referencing GRI and SASB disclosures.

2018: Five core sections: Ethics, Excellence, Associated, Communities, Environment. These are preceded by a section on Our Approach and followed by a GRI Content Index. 

The diet plan included, for example, exclusion of all case studies and appealing graphics. So, the section on information security and data privacy went from 5 pages of text in 2018 with icons, imagery, charts quotes to one page of monochromatic text.

2018  report - sustainability in party colors

2019 Report - ESG in funeral colors

Overall, this 2019 ESG Report is useful in presenting policies and data. It's definitely not a report you read - it's a disclosure document, nothing more. If this is what the super-serious, busy and story-challenged investment community is looking for, it might do the job. Neither report is externally assured, by the way. 

On the other hand, the 2018 Sustainability Report gets a message through - starting with the report title of Embracing Change and continuing through the insights of company leaders, case studies and more extensive descriptions of processes that underpin the disclosure and enhance credibility with a broader range of stakeholders. It's also appealing, you do more than just cherry-pick data-bytes, you actually read the narrative selectively and some of it is quite inspiring. 


I can certainly understand the appeal to company leadership of boarding the ESG train .. it's short, it's focused, it's lower budget and it plays to the demands of people who hold the money. And I am no means an advocate for tediously looooong sustainability reports. But in converting to ESG, perhaps something is getting lost en route - exactly what the CSR, Sustainability, Social Impact, Conscious Business, Accountability, Sustainable Impact etc Reports aimed to do: speak to all stakeholders in language all stakeholders understand in ways that help all stakeholders stay informed and engaged beyond computing facts and figures. 

I think this is symptomatic of the ongoing tension (and increasing complexity) in the sustainability space as investor interest has finally woken up to the fact that the impacts of companies are not just about traditional financial materiality. The challenge in this awakening is a bit like the old adage: When you are an ice cream, everything you see is a cone and chocolate sprinkles. (OK, I adapted that old adage). With investors, everything they are seeing in sustainability is now reframed as new financial risk (rather than a non-financial one) and monetized to assess its effect on shareholder value. We just might be in danger of coming full circle. I appreciate that corporations are struggling with this and how to best meet the needs of investors while continuing to place value in values. 

An example of a company that does it well, in my view, is FORD's Sustainability microsite.

Ford 2020 Sustainability microsite home page
Ford's online and downloadable Sustainability Report clearly states all the different frameworks that Ford reports against. It's a packed 54 page report that includes strategy, material topics, quotes, images, case studies and super interesting perspectives on all aspects of sustainable mobility and responsible practices.

And for the ESGerati, wow, there is also an ESG Reporting Hub. This contains not only the Sustainability Full and Summary Reports, but also downloadable indices for no less than 8 reporting frameworks, including GRI, SASB, UNGC, CDP and others. 

The ESG Hub continues with a suite of policies and positions and ESG highlights, for those who have an extra few minutes to scroll down the page.

It appears to me that Ford has invested in developing detailed disclosures and organizing them in a way that enables different stakeholders to get the information they want and need quickly and efficiently, without compromising on the richness of insight we seek from sustainability reporting. I like this. I feel that Ford is respecting all its stakeholders. 

In summary, I hope ESG does not become a poor proxy for sustainability reporting. I hope companies will not use ESG reporting as an opportunity to turn sustainability reporting into skeleton disclosure about whose numbers are bigger.

Resonate, anyone? 

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Owner/Manager of Beyond Business Ltdan inspired Sustainability Strategy and Reporting firm having supported 100+ client reports to date; author of three books and several chapters on Sustainability Reporting and the Human Resources connection to CSR; frequent chair and speaker at sustainability events and judge in several sustainability awards programs each year. Contact me via Twitter , LinkedIn or via Beyond Business   

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Reporting in CoronaWorld

The question on everyone's (masked) lips.😷 Although we are currently publishing a 2019 Sustainability Report, should we include our response to COVID-19, even though it occurred in 2020? 

In my view, the answer is unequivocally yes. Reporting is never in a vacuum, and when reality has changed so starkly between the time of preparation and the date of publication of a sustainability report, I believe it's fairly obtuse not to include a reference or update. In fact, many are referring to a company's COVID-19 response as a sort of litmus test of its seriousness about sustainability. If core values of positive social impact and responsible employment are not demonstrated in times of crisis, when they are most needed, then they are apparently not truly embedded. Check out the COVID-19 Stress Test by Vigeo Eiris, which concludes with the words: "CSR presents a pathway to protect consumer trust, investor confidence and workforce loyalty. If there is a simple lesson that we can relearn, it is that CSR practices can act as powerful tools when responding to a crisis."

I reviewed 30 Sustainability Reports that were published in the last few weeks (those that have crossed my radar through announcements and alerts) and produced the following analysis:

  • The majority of companies include references to COVID-19 in their 2019 Sustainability Reports, though a third of them are only doing so via a brief mention in the leadership (Chair, CEO or other senior leaders) letters. 
  • The number of companies providing extensive updates about their actions to support their stakeholders during the COVID-19 challenges are few - just 8 companies out of 30 specifically reference more than a single stakeholder group (e.g. employees, customers, suppliers, communities or new business activities). 
  • Most of the companies that have included COVID-19 references in their Sustainability Reports also have a COVID-19 update on their website homepage.
  • Three companies that do not provide COVID-19 updates in the 2019 Sustainability Report include a reference on the company homepage. 
  • Five companies - radio silence.

These results surprised me a little. There has been no greater global social or economic crisis in recent years than the coronavirus pandemic, affecting billions of lives, forcing businesses around the world to a standstill, a slowdown, or for many, bankruptcy. There has never been a period in our lifetime when the ability to work and deliver economic output has been so drastically affected. There have never been so many layoffs in such a short period, nor so many employees affected by the virus or by sickness or deaths of loved ones, neighbors or colleagues. Never has "materiality" been subordinated to a single overriding issue that affects everything corporations are doing.

In this unprecedented scale of crisis, all corporations face both risk and opportunity - the familiar duality of CSR or sustainability. The annual Sustainability Report is a core communication tool to disclose the impacts of companies on people and the environment, as well as the sustainability risks and opportunities companies face, and how they are dealing with them. By the time the next report is published, in 2021, although companies may still be navigating the "new normal", whatever that looks like, their actions now are what counts and what stakeholders seek to understand. A page on a website may get lost in time, a Sustainability Report is a permanent attestation to a company's commitment. Business is not currently "as usual". Sustainability Reports published in 2020 should also not be "as usual".

Yet, in more than a quarter of the recent reports I reviewed, companies say nothing at all - not even: "Hey folks, stay safe." For many others, the mention is cursory. On the positive side, there are examples of comprehensive disclosure such as Infosys, Samsung and Moody's (see below).

Here are a few examples from the 30 reports I reviewed (alpha order):

B2Gold: 2019 Sustainability Report - Raising the Bar

B2Gold's President and CEO references COVID-19 in his opening letter - not the first thing he addresses, but it is there on the first page of the letter and a commitment to work with governments, health authorities and other players to support navigating the pandemic. Separately, B2Gold includes a half page update of key COVID-19 initiatives and commitments addressing employees, health and safety and community - referencing more details on the company's website.

Notably, all forecasts and data shared for 2020 is footnoted in B2Gold's report with the words: "based on current assumptions, subject to variation due to impacts of COVID-19 pandemic."

GasLog Ltd: Sustainability Report 2019

This is a first report from this company, and nothing like a baptism of fire, facing both the challenges of first time reporting AND the COVID-19 pandemic all at the same time. GasLog's Chairman's first words in his opening letter addresses this. In fact, the first paragraph of the Chair's letter includes the word "challenges" three times - a symptom of today's market and reporting environment. In addition to this, GasLog briefly references the measures taken to protect employees and maintain operations.

Infosys: Sustainability Report 2019 - 2020

Infosys provides detailed coverage of its COVID-19 response, starting with a reference in the COO letter to the contribution made by the Infosys Foundation to support local communities. Later, a dedicated section in the report focuses on Infosys' risk management approach and support for the health and safety of employees and vendors, and business continuity plans for customers.

COVID-19 references also appear in different sections of the report, describing, for example, research initiatives on the effects of the pandemic, and a hackathon hosted with IBM to address issues such as crisis communications and remote working. Another example is converting the company's internship program to operate virtually so that interns can stay on course in their careers. There is also a specific case study on smart building automation as a key factor in managing uninterrupted operations in buildings, including critical infrastructure like data centers.

Further, Infosys reports pushing out its climate ambition from its commitment to achieve carbon neutrality in 2020 to 2021 due to COVID related uncertainties. Interesting. With all the travel restrictions, lockdown and virtual working, you might have thought that the carbon neutral commitment would be even easier to achieve in 2020. But apparently it take more than zoom meetings and cancelled flights to deliver a long-term step change in carbon performance. It's notable the the company is acting with a measure of caution and publishing an updated commitment to stakeholders. 

Mondelez International: Snacking Made Right 2019 Report

Several references are made in different sections of the report, covering employees, safety, communities in addition to a brief mention by the CEO in his opening letter.

And this is a final comment from the General Counsel:
So, not overly detailed, but clearly representing different dimensions of the Mondelez COVID-19 response. Mondelez also maintains a website page, accessible from the homepage, with a detailed list of actions currently being taken across different aspects of the business.

Moody's Investor Service: 2019 Corporate Responsibility Report

Moody's covers its response to COVID-19 through its CSR Report across different dimensions of its activities, with a focus on helping customers and markets navigate this pandemic and managing risk.

Interestingly, as an employer of 11,000 people worldwide, Moody's makes no reference to what it's doing to support its employees through the challenges of COVID-19, choosing to focus on market and customer-facing actions. Moody's coverage of its COVID-19 response is prominent on the company's homepage and covered in a coronavirus blog. You can also download a Moody's COVID-19 status report, an early example of what I suspect will be a flurry of standalone COVID-19 Response Reports that many companies will publish starting in late 2020 and through 2021, supplementing regular annual and sustainability reporting. Sooner or later, someone might even develop a standard for COVID-19 CSR Reports (GRI? Anyone? 😂)

Regency Centers:  2019 Corporate Responsibility Report

Recency Centers publishes a strong report that is GRI, SASB and TCFD compliant, well-structured and nicely laid out. This applies also to their COVID-19 response, grouped on one page, covering support for employees, communities and ethical conduct. There's something to be said about grouping COVID-19 updates on one page (or two) - providing a sense of scale and coverage to a company's response, This way, the reader can appreciate the company has a considered response, rather than a fragmented (uncoordinated) one. 

Samsung Electronics: 2020 Sustainability Report

Samsung Electronics has one of the most extensive (and impressive) examples of coverage on COVID-19, and, in this 13th Sustainability Report, introduces a dedicated chapter covering the COVID response and other mentions throughout the report. Specifically, the CEO opens up with understanding the challenges everyone faces and wishing everyone well. Nice. Then a dedicated chapter covering Samsung's COVID response for employees, suppliers, customers and some stories.

In particular, thanks to COVID, we meet Kim. Kim, I assume, is a fictitious employee and Samsung shares the changes to her day as a result of COVID-19 measures in the work environment. I note she didn't take time for ice-cream, but maybe this wasn't a typical day!

Beyond this, Samsung shares in the dedicated COVID-19 chapter,  (and in a case study later in the report) how the company helped boost mask production in Korea by 51% through deploying support personnel to optimize the production process for local mask-makers, and engaged more than 100,000 employees in brainstorming and debating ideas to address COVID-related challenges. Samsung also references COVID-19 in its risk management section and the establishment of a separate COVID-19 risk monitoring and response organization. All in all, a comprehensive and creative disclosure on COVID from Samsung, demonstrating a holistic approach to protecting different stakeholders.

Briefest of mentions in the report. Cursory mention by the CEO and a short reference to triggering risk management protocols to support employees and maintain supply chain continuity. One nice touch: Thank you to report contributors who worked to complete the report in lockdown.

There is no mention of COVID-19 on this company's website 😩.


Reporting is never easy and reporting in CoronaWorld is even less easy. Well done to all these companies and others who are maintaining reporting, with or without references to their COVID response in this period. I have no doubt that the pressures at this time on all businesses could easily turn into an excuse to delay/shelve disclosure. Having said that, the way companies are behaving through this pandemic is a direct reflection of their values. Does no COVID disclosure = no values? Well, that might be going a little far, but no disclosure certainly risks eroding stakeholder trust. 

What's the best way to disclose? Report? Web? Social media? Answer: All of the above. But failing to include any form of COVID response in sustainability reports publishing this year is a missed opportunity and one that stakeholders are not likely to forget. Even ice cream may not help.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Owner/Manager of Beyond Business Ltdan inspired Sustainability Strategy and Reporting firm having supported 107 client reports to date; author of three books and several chapters on Sustainability Reporting and the Human Resources connection to CSR; frequent chair and speaker at sustainability events and judge in several sustainability awards programs each year. Contact me via Twitter , LinkedIn or via Beyond Business   

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