Saturday, September 26, 2015

5 truths about Volkswagen and CSR

It's just incredible how everyone is jumping down the throat of sustainability and sustainability reporting as a result of the Volkswagen crimes against emissions. Is the sustainability movement so fragile that the deliberate fraudulent behavior of one corporation can disrupt the credibility of thousands of corporations that are making genuine efforts to act ethically, responsibly and ... wow, even legally? The first thing many people are saying now that Volkswagen is down the tubes is: "Aha, vindicated at last, that's the end of CSR. Just look at Volkswagen's last Sustainability Report. What a waste of paper. This just proves that CSR is all a big waste of time. It's about time we started refocusing on business and leaving out the sustainability PR stuff.

A few examples from the flurry of writings over the past couple of days:

"Volkswagen takes down corporate social responsibility in its plunge to the bottom of the sea"
Linda Greer's blog on the NRDC likens Volkswagen's statements in its sustainability report to something out of a Hollywood script. She finds it incredible that environmental professionals actually believe anything that's written in self-reported glossy brochures and infographics. Now that Volkswagen is exposed, she says we have to reevaluate what other companies are up to.

"Volkswagen and the dark side of corporate sustainability"
Lauren Helper's post focuses on ratings and rankings, noting that the DJSI is now developing a new picture of public perception that will be factored in to DJSI rankings. The conclusion is foregone. DJSI will want to drop Volkswagen even faster than shareholders are dumping Volkswagen's stock. And then of course, the entire voluntary thing is now on the chopping table. If it's a voluntary disclosure, it must be rubbish. Henk Campher, a well-known PR player in sustainability circles actually says "I'm not surprised this happened!". Lack of regulation and paying too much attention to ratings and rankings are apparently among the root causes according to Henk.

"VW Scandal a Jolt to 'CSR' That Reaches Far Beyond the Auto Industry"
Leon Kaye's take on the Volkswagen impact, published on Sustainable Brands also makes the point that Volkswagen cheated = CSR is rubbish: "For too long now, CSR has focused far more on theatrics and less on tangible results.....CSR lens tends to focus on accolades and congratulate each other for stories well told ..Volkwagen’s struggles send a signal to the CSR and sustainability crowd that it must start changing its tone and set its sights on what it does best - helping organizations operate more sustainably.... " According to Leon, the sustainability movement risks "irrelevance" because one corporation has managed to get away with cheating the system for a few years.

"VW Scandal Exposes What Has Gone Awry with ‘CSR’"
Another article from Leon Kaye, this time on Triple Pundit, offers a similar take: "Unfortunately, while the ideals behind corporate social responsibility certainly have merit, the overall execution has been deeply flawed. The trend in CSR has been to focus more on goals and aspirations, and less on concrete and tangible results."

"The Volkswagen diesel deception - 5 key questions "
Rather than delivering their own diatribe denouncing CSR and Sustainability movement, Crane and Matten ask five questions about the "nature of corporate responsibility" that arise as a result of Volkswagengate. Top of the list - you guessed it. " How is it possible that a company committed to some of the core values of corporate responsibility could so blatantly cross the line into not only unethical but clearly illegal practice in a key area of its responsibilities? Is this just another greenwash case to fuel further cynicism about the CSR commitment of corporations?"

"Here's The Joke Of A Sustainability Report That VW Put Out Last Year"
Emily Peck at Huffington Post takes the well-traveled path, pulling holes Volkswagen's statements about values, commitment and ethics. She even counts the number of times the word "environment" appears in Volkswagen's last report. She calls it an absurd document.

Well, folks, let me set a few things straight. It's easy enough to get settled in on the CSR-bashing bandwagon. Instead, I offer five truths about the current discourse on Volkswagen and CSR.

ONE: The fact that a company is highly placed in rankings and ratings means not all that much.

In my view, rankings and ratings are designed in the best interests of the rankers and the raters. I believe they are rarely rigorous enough or balanced enough to be a reliable guide for investors or for any other stakeholder. Comparability among companies, even within sectors, remains nebulous. Ratings are designed to give the rankers and the raters a claim to fame and often, a revenue stream. Just look at how the same company can rank top in one system and bottom in another and pretty much everywhere on the spectrum in several others. Rankings and ratings are not necessarily a bad things (as long as we don't believe them). They play a role in framing a debate and generating some competitive interest. They can be a CEO hook. That can encourage companies to do better. On the other hand, rankings may encourage companies to appear to do better. Possibly the strive to be a supersector superpower partially fuelled the creative criminality at Volkswagen, who knows? The point is, just the fact that Volkswagen was a DJSI superstar is not directly connected to the set of actions that caused the current issue. And the fact that one company screwed up does not make the rankings and ratings any better or any worse than they already are.

I think my respected colleague Antonio Vives comes to the same conclusion. More or less. My Spanish is not that good. In his article about Volkswagengate, he concludes: "Esto también nos demuestra que las calificaciones, rankings y premiso de responsabilidad deben tomarse con mucha suspicacia." which Google translated for me as "This also shows that the ratings, rankings and permission of responsibility should be taken with great suspicion."

TWO: The fact that a company produces great sustainability reports does not mean it is perfect.

Oh dear!! Did I disappoint you? Did you think that Sustainability Reporting comes with a squeaky clean bill-of-health in the sustainable-company department? Well, it does come with a guarantee. But not the one you think. Sustainability Reporting comes with a guarantee that the information that is NOT reported is the information that is MOST relevant to stakeholders. Hah. Work that one out. The upside is that sustainability reporting adds value in so many ways and the information that IS reported often has value as well. But the fact that there was dirty dealing at Volkswagen does not means that every single word in its Sustainability Report was untrue, or that other sustainability reports of other companies are suddenly irrelevant. Sustainability reporting as a process adds value, it empowers people, it catalyzes performance and it enables dialogue. One dirty player doesn't change that. But it does remind us that, as stakeholders, we are the vigilantes. When was the last time you asked a company about something they published in their Sustainability Report? It's easy to sit on the sidelines and say the system doesn't work when you are doing nothing to make it work.

THREE: The fact that people break the law is a fact. It's not always preventable. That's not about sustainability. Sometimes it's just breaking the law. 

How many companies have Codes of Ethics these days? All of them? How many companies have people who work for them that break the law? All of them? How many companies say they value women in management? All of them? How many companies have less than 50% women in management? Nearly all of them? How many companies have teams of lawyers fighting legal breaches or misdemeanors? Most of them? The point is that there will always be differences between saying and doing and there will always be people who break the law. They may be your family, your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues, your employees or your bosses. If they want to break the law, there's probably nothing you can do to stop them. Unless you speak out. Why did no-one at Volkswagen speak out? That's the most interesting question of all. How many people were complicit in this crazy scheme and how many thought they were acting in their own best interests? I guess we will hear the sensational details sooner or later, but if I were in a CEO seat right now, I would start making whistle-blowing one of the top corporate values alongside reinforcing the values of trust, honesty, legal and ethical behavior. As we say in the Middle East, "Trust in Allah, but tie your camel."  But does the fact that people want to break the law and the corporate culture is not strong enough to prevent them doing so equate to CSR being an ineffective waste of time? Don't think so. That math doesn't add up. 

FOUR: More regulation will not prevent companies circumventing regulation. Voluntary does have value. 

Yeah, yeah, yeah, all this voluntary stuff is not what it's cracked up to be, the naysayers are naysaying. Time to change the laws, make more laws, don't let companies do just what they want. Well, truth be told, it's much of the voluntary work that is done by corporations in the field of CSR that has influenced and continues to influence greater lawmaking. Would Europe have passed a directive on mandatory sustainability reporting had not the largest companies in the world led the charge and undertaken to do so voluntarily? No way. And I could give a thousand more examples. Voluntary CSR has a way of raising the bar, paving the way for regulation to touch it up around the edges and level the playing field. What's the alternative? Sit around and wait for lawmakers to wake up? Look where that got us RIO+20. A corporate reality without voluntary CSR and sustainability strategies would be a far grimmer reality than the one we share today. And finally for the pro-regulators, this would not have prevented Volkswagengate. Regulation was in place. Volkswagen broke the law, systematically and deliberately. (See truth three above). Maybe we should pass a law saying that people in companies should not break the law. Now, there's a thought.

FIVE: The fact that Volkswagen is history does not mean that sustainability is too.

The sustainability movement will be around long after Volkswagen has been buried under the 11 million vehicles it may need to recall or pay compensation for. Thousands of companies around the world have been saying that sustainability in one form or another is one of the most important aspects of the way they do business for many years now. Some of them are winging it, PR-blurbing and greenwashing ... but many are genuinely genuine. Look at the CEO surveys over the last couple of years. Sustainability is the talk and many are walking the talk. No company has reached perfection. Everyone is still walking. Might be good if we picked up the walking pace to a light jog sometime soon, but what's been achieved so far is not cancelled by Winterkorn and team. That would be far overstating the power that Volkswagen can leverage both in the motor vehicle sector and in general. Watch this space. Sustainability will outlive Volkswagen.

Anyway, at least I don't drive a Volkswagen. I just hope Hyundai doesn't screw up some time soon.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine:  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Changing the game at Virgin Media

There are times that publishing a sustainability report in hard copy, or even PDF download format, as a single document, just won't cut it with your key stakeholders. This is especially true if your business is quintessentially digital. If everything you do is digital, for digital, by digital, more digital, digital for good, digital to improve lives, digital future, digital society... then digital sustainability has to be the right fit.

So it is with Virgin Media and digital sustainability reporting. Finding the best way to use digital for delivering sustainability messages to key stakeholders has been developed quite skillfully by Virgin Media over the years. I recall Katie Buchanan, Virgin Media's Head of Sustainability, presenting at a conference some years back, telling the story of how the folks in Virgin Media's logistics team created their own video to show the sustainable steps of a Virgin Media shipment to a customer. Here's the video - always worth another look. 

Recently, Katie and I chatted again following the release of Virgin Media's latest report, starring their "5 in 5" game-changing goals that set out Virgin Media's sustainability ambitions for the next five years to both help the company grow responsibly and sustainably while doing more good with digital. Each of the goals is sponsored by a Virgin Media Executive Committee member and they cover the following areas:
  • People – Nurture an engaged workforce which represents the diversity of our customers and communities 
  • Products - Improve the sustainability performance of every new customer product 
  • Operations - Grow our business without increasing our carbon footprint 
  • Boosting business - Create the opportunities for 100,000 small businesses to grow in the UK’s economy through digital 
  • Transforming lives - Transform the lives of disadvantaged people in the UK through digital technology 
The great thing about these goals is that they have a roadmap. 


The roadmap defines each goal in more detail, explains its relevance and states short term objectives to 2015 and longer term actions through to 2020. In the People goal, for example, Virgin Media has three quantitative, measurable objectives:

1: Increase the percentage of female senior leaders from 30% to 40% by 2018
2: Continually improve engagement levels and exceed the UK Best Employer benchmark
3: Have 80% of our people voluntarily disclosing their ‘diversity information’ by 2017

Overall the presentation of the report is superbly digital, including different types of employee-made films and blogs.

Right from the home page, you can move to the strategy, the performance and a range of digital case studies that provide further insight. Performance-wise, Virgin Media's presentation includes evidence of positive achievement, such as zero waste in the supply chain and increasing the percentage of women in leadership roles, and areas for improvement, including energy and carbon efficiency. You don't have to have a doctorate in sustainability jargon to understand it. Every one of Virgin Media's 5 million UK customers can get it. 

Reporting digitally offers great opportunity for creativity, and the use of human infographics to help illustrate performance is a worldwide first. I don't recall seeing this anywhere else ever - it 's a great way to present complex information while involving and engaging employees - and above all - make reporting FUN! 

To bring it all together, there's a resources page where you can find performance data from 2008 and other relevant information as you navigate Virgin Media's 2014 report.

(I should add that Virgin Media is part of the Liberty Global group of companies, and Virgin Media's sustainability performance is included in the the annual group global corporate responsibility report as well, addressing corporate audiences.)

Why is this so interesting? What's so riveting about great graphics and a clear website? The reasons I find this actually quite breakthrough are five-fold:

First, it's a seamless fit with the brand promise, style, tone and approach.
Second, it's totally accessible - eye-level - for consumers and not just CSR professionals.
Third, it's bold and brave, presenting a focused five year strategy commitment supported by defined actions.
Fourth, it's creative, engaging and energizing for employees, providing a platform for a step-change in action at all levels of the company.
Fifth, it's an example of how a brand can bring sustainability to the masses. The Digital for Good strategy is appealing and easy to understand. Sustainability technobabble of the kind you find in many GRI G4 reports simply wouldn't work for Virgin Media stakeholders. I wonder if this is not an approach that more companies couldn't learn from to simplify the technobabble into day-to-day messaging that we can all appreciate. 

I asked Katie Buchanan, Head of Sustainability, for her insights. She told me:

"At Virgin Media, we put the customer at the heart of everything we do. For our customers and our staff - our primary audience - a hard copy report just doesn’t work, we’ve tried! Our people are based in our call centers, retail shops, out on the road – we have to find a way to get our message out to all of them. Online is much more accessible - they can view the website anywhere, even at home. We take our content from our website – and play the films in our retail stores, in team breakout areas and so on - we try to take the message to where the audience is. We recognize that starting with our staff enables us to bring our strategy to life in a way that makes sense and is engaging to them.

"Perhaps the thing I am most proud of about our new strategy is its simplicity. It's clear, focused and aligned to our commercial strategy and brand purpose. This is the culmination of 12 months engagement with staff, 500 consumers and our Executive Committee. As part of the Liberty Global Group, we started with the group materiality exercise. This was valuable in helping us to determine which key issues to focus on.

"Our process culminated with taking 14 senior business leaders away from their desks for a full-day workshop to help bring it altogether. In creating our ambitious goals, we worked hard to make them meaningful and avoid jargon. Perhaps most importantly, the link to our commercial and business objectives is clear – for example,supporting small businesses is an important economic and social need but it's absolutely essential to our own growth as a business. This integration of business and sustainability is stronger than ever before and we expect it will be a major key to our success. 

"We have established clear governance – each goal is owned by an Executive Committee member who will drive performance and engagement. Engaging our staff through fun videos and human infographics is another way we bring sustainability to life at Virgin Media, while addressing the accountability and transparency needs of our stakeholders." 

Sounds like a game-changing approach to me. Definitely deserves ice cream.

Take a look. As usual, send feedback.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine:   

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Sustainability Crystal Ball

Don't you wish you could have a crystal ball that would tell you what sustainability issues are coming up to hit you in the glabella? Or somewhere else even more painful? Wouldn't you like to know the issues before your stakeholders turn you into mush? Wouldn't you want to prepare your sustainability strategy knowing that you have covered all the angles and not left materiality to fortuity? Wouldn't you want a little materiality certainty rather than a lot of materiality perplexity? 

The answer to all your wishes just may have come true with a little big thing that calls itself the DatamaranTM. Yes, that's Datamaran, not catamaran. Catamarans are characterized by light weight, high stability, reduced drag and comfort that get you where you want to go. That's kind of what you want from technology too, so the selection of the name Datamaran for a dynamic, interactive, real-time personalizable database of sustainability issues is apparently not entirely coincidental.

Datamaran is the new little big thing for companies who want to be in control of their sustainability journey. With sustainability, there are so many variables that it's hard to stay in on top of what's most important. If you can't see the forest for the saplings, then you might need to cut through the undergrowth. (Am I mixing metaphors?)

Datamaran is the brainchild of startup eRevalue. Marjella Alma, founder of eRevalue, explained it to me: 

"Sustainability closes doors. People look at frameworks and numbers. We should take a step back, relax and then come back to see how the land lies. The frameworks that we use such as GRI or SASB should not be treated as forms you fill in and tick the sustainability “box”. Companies must first and foremost take responsibility for their impacts – “know your business” - regardless of the framework and their prescribed KPIs. But how do this when there’s many initiatives, various opinions, regulatory pressures… and you have a complex value chain?

We wanted to create a tool that would help companies understand and navigate the issues so that they can talk about what's really on the table, not reduce this important effort to “selecting from a set of generic givens”. We asked ourselves how we could put this in front of companies to help them identify emerging issues by country, by sector, by competitive landscape and by regulatory pressures. 

We wanted to help companies know what to talk about and how to establish the right kind of KPIs that are relevant for them, and early enough in the process so that companies are not caught unaware." 

HQ'd in London with a team of 25+ ESG experts, lawyers and data scientists and growing, eRevalue's Datamaran is set for a long and meaningful navigation through sustainaland.  

Marjella makes a lot of sense (She usually does. I've known her for quite a while!) We are being plied and prodded with more frameworks and regulations than we can ever imagine and more and more companies are asking, how can we cut through the clutter? More companies are looking to filter out the noise, as the folks at eRevalue say. Datamaran conjures up a set of emerging issues to be aware of as you assess what's material for your business and for your stakeholders. The issues are driven by what people are really talking about out there, as it happens. The conversations that suddenly explode into viral megaphones are caught at an early stage in the Datamaran clutches, letting you know who's doing the talking and how loud everybody else is shouting. Ultimately it becomes a real-time materiality funnel, shaping the relative force of the issues as the conversations on the radar vary in intensity.  

Datamaran works with complex search algorithms across a taxonomy of 6,000 search terms relating to 120 issues on the sustainability radar, hunting down references in corporate websites, Sustainability Reports, SEC filings, Annual Reports and increasingly, media and social media, starting with Twitter. There is also a regulatory platform where all the regulatory frameworks relative to a particular issue magically pop up, and even indicate emerging regulation that is on the radar. In short, all the things that your materiality analysis needs as you create it and as you revise it. 

For reporting, Datamaran helps you understand what's current right now. Suppose you are a company and you are about to prepare your next Sustainability Report. You have your overall strategy and materiality framework mapped out, but you are interested to know what is on the radar right now for your peer group. 

I couldn't resist having a little play around with Datamaran. (Fortunately it's not catamaran, as I am prone to seasickness). I imagined I was a large pharmaceutical company. I selected in my profile the issues that are currently on my radar and I benchmarked these against global and regional issues for my peer companies in relation to what they report in sustainability reports.

At a global level, I see that occupational health and safety, environmental issues and employee issues are picking up the most noise in terms of what pharma peer companies are reporting in their sustainability reports.    

Drilling down, I was able to get a view of how these issues play our in different regions and the relative noise created by each issue in the current landscape. When I separately benchmarked Europe, Americas and Asia, I got different rankings.


Globally, I can see that 91% of my peer companies mention waste in their sustainability reports - a sign that I had better ensure I'm on top of that too. 

Broadly speaking, the top 20 issues don't change significantly across regions - as I would not expect them to do - but in the Americas, waste comes out top; in Europe, occupational health and safety comes out top and in Asia, workforce diversity and inclusion tops the list. While these results might not be significant enough for me to entirely redraw my materiality matrix, it's certainly interesting enough for me to check out who's saying what in the different regions and why. On the subject of waste, for example, we can see the regulatory landscape of current and emerging legislation quite clearly and for each issue, Datamaran can take us back to the source legislation. 

There are a million other ways Datamaran can be useful.. I have only scratched the surface. In my chat with Marjella, I understand that the busy bees at eRevalue are technologizing away really really fast to expand the applicability and personalizability of the system to make it even more useful. This is apparently the only tool of its kind around to support sustainability material decision making and low-noise focus. 

As with any database, what comes out is only as good as what goes in, and the way the program functionality is constructed. So as long as Datamaran keeps its legs on dry land, it seems that it could be quite useful. I'll certainly keep this radar on my radar....  I always wanted a crystal ball.   

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine:   

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What's reporting without culture?

Back in 2010, I published my first book, CSR for HR, a guide to the way Human Resources Managers can drive corporate responsibility, using their leverage at the center of organizations to encourage and empower an accountable culture. While the book was a great success ... by all accounts... and I continue to receive positive comments ... the HR profession has not really transformed itself into a champion of CSR... far from it. Of course, HR Managers may not see championing CSR as their remit. But that's only because they do not realize that CSR is actually a way to reinforce and strengthen the HR function in any organization. Since my book was published, the role of employees in driving CSR and the need to engage employees has moved higher up the agenda. In fact, almost every Sustainability Report you read today has some reference to employee engagement and many make the link between engagement and positive sustainability outcomes. 

That's as it should be. Sustainability reporting as a process should involve employees and inspire them. Rather than being the headache it often is, it can be a tool to create elevated levels of empowerment and engagement of employees. Some companies testify to this. Corus Entertainment in Canada regularly celebrates employees in annual sustainability reports and rewards them for their citizenship efforts. The Corus reports present a workplace where accountability is a value and employees are engaged and empowered to do their best for themselves and each other, the company, the community and the planet. 

A string of workplace awards tend to confirm this position.

3M's 2015 Sustainability Report covers how the company encourages and empowers employees to be creative  with sustainability in mind.

"During the 2014 Sustainability Week, we addressed global sustainability challenges we all face every day at home and at work. 3Mers were asked to think creatively, collaborate, and innovate with the shared goal of making life better... And we led a Shark Tank-inspired Power Pitch, which allowed teams of employees to suggest business ideas with a sustainability focus to compete for research and development funding with winners chosen through global text voting by their peers."

The culture of sustainability is reinforced in other ways, such as use of social media - an example below from Pinterest:

Anyway, also in 2010, I wrote on this blog about H&M and the crisis of the discarded garments in New York. The point was that, in an organization that had truly embedded CSR culture and practice, such an instance might not have happened. Employees would know how to connect their actions to potential issues on the CSR radar (more about the radar in an upcoming post. Hint: Datamaran). The BIC blip reminded me of that this week. How many marketeers just have no clue? How much insensitivity is an organization allowed to demonstrate at the same time as professing to support a CSR approach? At what point does an organization realize that CSR is a way of being, not just a project of doing?  And that even marketing folks need an invitation to the party.

Maybe you saw the BIC blip  example reported in the Guardian this past week ...

Who on earth in their right mind could think this would be encouraging or inspiring for women? You would have to be a total idiot to create something like this and an even greater idiot for authorizing it, and a double greater idiot for publishing it. Look like a girl? Think like a man? Come on....Even if the intention was positive, the gaping cavern between intent and result testifies to a lack of embedded culture of sensitivity to others. How can employees of a responsible business be so misguided? Does it really need an onslaught of criticism on social media to tell them they got it so wrong? 

BIC has a very clear Code of Ethics that employees are bound to uphold. It includes the company's approach to Human Rights and provides guidance for employees in the principles of communicating and engaging with each other.

The code does not specifically include reference to responsible marketing, though some indirect references can be found in  BIC's  2014 Sustainable Development Report

Generally BIC refers to the marketing teams's involvement in advancing the sustainable development program and marketing initiatives, such as:

"All of the professional functions involved (marketing, communication, sales) are equipped with the tools they need to explain BIC’s Sustainable Development Program."

Another reference to marketeers is an initiative to engage them through  a BIC recycling program in partnership with TerraCycle. This was the first initiative to collect and recycle writing instruments in France,  launched in 2011, and now expanded to several countries in Europe. BIC talks about this program as "inspiring marketeers to support the circular economy."

However, there's no reference to marketing communications and advertising as necessarily reflecting a respectful organization culture. BIC conducts a values survey among employees every 2 years to review "Values in Action" and also makes awards to employees who demonstrate core values of ethics and responsibility and more.  Results of the surveys are presented to employees. Therefore it seems that there are platforms to talk about culture, values, respectful communications and sustainable development. However, when it comes to the marketing department, there may be a need for some more work. 

It seems to me that BIC might be well served by developing and publishing a formal policy of responsible marketing and marketing communications. At the same time, BIC should undertake an intensive training program on diversity and inclusion for everyone involved in corporate and marketing communications. 

In the meantime, I don't plan to follow BIC's advice ... I'd rather :

LOOK like me
ACT like me
THINK like me
WORK like me 

I may not be perfect but at least  - hey - it's me. 

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine:   

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Short reports, big messages

Some of the best reports are the shortest. Writing a short report doesn't mean you lose the big message. On the contrary, short reports focus the mind on the right information for the right stakeholders. So, when Liberty Global decided to prepare the Group's 2014 annual G4 core Corporate Responsibility Report at 32 pages (excluding covers), this immediately caused the adrenaline to flow and the brain-cells to gravitate to a different approach to reporting that is much more focused and strategic than the intuitive approach of "let's gather everything we can and report on that". Heaven forbid that a company should forget to include the $1,500 donation that operators in the packing plant collected for Oxfam, or the Christmas party held for local schoolkids, or the color of the plant manager's new socks. All of these things are great, but when you tune yourself in to reporting strategically on the most important things - what I call relevant transparency - then you end up with an immensely readable, compact and relevantly transparent report. 

That's not to say that Liberty Global doesn't pack a punch with this report. Partially, this is because this strategic approach is not new. Liberty Global adopted a clear CR framework in 2012 and has empowered this framework to guide the global corporate approach and activities, improving in focus and sharpness with each successive year.

Promoting a digital society is at the heart of the strategy and represents one of the group's most material impacts. Liberty Global is the largest international cable company with 27 million customers subscribing to 56 million television, broadband internet and telephony services, operating in 14 countries and employing more than 38,000 people. Consumer brands owned by Liberty Global that you might recognize include Virgin Media, Ziggo, Telenet and UPC. The Liberty Global report covers activity driven at corporate level and provides a framework and direction for the companies in the group, most of whom report separately in their own markets. The digital society is Liberty Global's core business and advancing access and skills to take advantage of the digital society is both a social good and a business benefit. Strategically, Liberty Global has aligned business, sustainability and materiality. This forms the basis for reporting and enables the possibility of an extremely focused report.

Keeping the report short is then a four pronged affair: First, get the strategic framework right. Check. Second, be completely selective about what to include and what to exclude. Adding in loads more case studies - and there are plenty in a company the size of Liberty Global - is not an advantage. Selecting specific stories that illustrate performance and are representative of material impacts is what you aim for. Exclude the non-critical stories. Check. Third, once you have selected the content and stories, keep the narrative compact, minimal, and avoid repetition. Check. Fourth, where you can, use visuals to tell the story and save on words while getting the message across. Check.

Example of a visual used to present a lot of information about Liberty Global's digital society initiatives.

One of the impressive features of Liberty Global's reporting is the consistency of alignment to a set of multi-year commitments. As with prior reports, in 2014, Liberty Global clearly updates us on progress made against these commitments and advises new ones. Commitments (or targets) are available for each material impact area -  a total of 14 targets in all. Just a couple didn't progress as planned, and these are communicated transparently.

Each of the report's main sections starts with an explanation of why it matters and what Liberty Global is doing.

Aside from the presentation, Liberty Global has made impressive headway in its Corporate Responsibility performance over the past few years, and in 2015, was named the RobecoSAM Industry Mover, achieving the largest proportional performance improvement among industry peers. Liberty Global has improved energy and carbon efficiency against 2020 targets, and has advanced a program of supply chain assessment of key suppliers based on self-assessments against 21 environmental and social indicators. And as for promoting a digital society, Liberty Global has been a consistent support and key player in the Digital Agenda for Europe , investing in programs such as YouRock’s employability platform and CoderDojo, a not-for-profit coding club across Europe with 60 sessions that reached 2,000 young people.

Here is the press release that gives some more highlights of the report.

For a short report, that is aligned with GRI G4 Guidelines, Liberty Global's 2014 Corporate Responsibility Report gets the message across. I recommend you take a look. And give feedback!

Disclosure: I assisted Liberty Global in preparing the 2014 Corporate Responsibility Report.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your Sustainability Report? Contact elaine:   

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Getting Human Rights Right

Unilever gets a lot of the spotlight these days on the sustainability horizon. This will help you understand why. I felt compelled to shine a light on the new report that Unilever has published on human rights. This is by far one of the best corporate accounts of position, practice, performance and intention on this subject that I have seen over the years, and again, Unilever raises the bar for advancing sustainability practice and disclosure. With this report, Unilever turns human rights from an onerous obligation that's reported by most companies with zero bells and whistles and a dollop of misplaced righteousness into a fun, colorfully-presented, superbly constructed and actually interesting 64 pages. This has to be mandatory reading for anyone thinking about their company's position on human rights - both for the insights about what's important and why and what can be done, and also for the way it's presented. Just look at the cover. Doesn't look like boring old human rights again, does it?  

Paul Polman's introduction is credible. This is because Paul Polman has become more of a sustainable brand than Unilever itself. Paul Polman's personal brand promise is about the no-nonsense practicalities of making sustainable values work. All may not be perfect at Unilever but Paul Polman cuts through the noise as a leading sustainability advocate with a trusted voice that speaks honestly and with integrity. When Paul Polman says in this report that Unilever is approaching human rights with a mixture of conviction and humility, I believe him. When he says the process of developing the Unilever's inaugural human rights report has been inspiring and humbling, I believe him. When he says this is a new beginning, and a long-term commitment, I believe him. And believing him, I am believing the report. Partly also because this report is not touted as a look-how-great-we-are report, but as a sharing of learnings and a stage in the journey. It's also a public declaration of intent to go beyond "respecting human rights" to "actively promoting human rights". There is a sense that this report is as much for Unilever itself as it is for the world.  

It starts with reiterating the social need to protect human rights and goes on to highlight milestones along the path that Unilever has taken over the years to bring human rights into the corporate consciousness.

Marcela Manubens, Global VP for Social Impact at Unilever, reinforces the approach, making a call to "rethink" business. "At Unilever, our vision is to build a company that represents the new capitalism, in which business exists to serve – not take from – society, and is a critical enabler of inclusive economic growth and job creation.

There are many things we can learn from this report. I am tempted to quote so much of it, but that would make this post as long as the report itself. So I will limit myself to a few observations:

Unilever's approach is firmly rooted in policy, starting with external globally-accepted policy frameworks that most of us are familiar with, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ILO (International Labor Organization) policies. It is also the first report that is aligned with the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework that was launched in February 2014 following the work of John Ruggie. What's interesting here is the way Unilever has created a set of aligned policies (7 in all, including the original Unilever Code of Business Principles) and while there is some overlap, each targets a specific aspect of Human Rights and /or a specific audience (such as suppliers or business partners). This suite of policies forms the bedrock of Unilever's action across the range of human rights issues in the business. 

Unilever's governance of human rights issues is clearly laid out - from the creation of HR Ambassadors across the markets to external engagement with a range of stakeholders. Long-standing collaborations with NGOs Oxfam and Solidaridad, among others, have helped shape Unilever's perspectives and performance. 

The focus of Unilever's activities has been clearly articulated across 8 core human rights issues identified as "salient" for Unilever.  (Maybe "salient" is the new "material"?).  

Each issue is addressed in its own section, providing some context, Unilever's historical and current approach, and a few case studies. It's good reading. What's most appealing, and illuminating, is the discussion of the challenges a company like Unilever faces when reaching deep into the supply chain to uncover issues at the day-to-day level of diverse operations and Unilever's sharing of examples of problems that have arisen and actions taken to resolve. For example, a supplier was found conducting pat down searches to prevent workers from bringing their mobile devices to the production area, and at a salt pan operation in India, excessive working hours, poor health and safety practices, and lack of a proper process for the payment of wages were uncovered. An an independent assessment of Unilever's tea supply chain in Turkey revealed "significant and pressing" challenges. Equally, there is an open discussion of road safety risks with 48 road traffic-related fatalities involving Unilever employees on company business and members of the public, as well as more than 250 injuries and 5,000 accidents between 2007 and 2014. Land use is a fairly recent addition to the human rights agenda, and Unilever's work in this area is also at an early stage, but the intention to create a new Global Land Rights Policy and ongoing consultations with external experts and organizations will help Unilever establish leadership here too in coming years.

The next section of this report is dedicated to Unilever's framework: Prevent - Detect - Respond - both in Unilever's own operations and throughout the supply chain.  Due diligence, supplier audits, support and encouragement for suppliers as they try to improve, and detailed tracking analysis of compliance data are highlighted. There was a 60% decrease in conformance issues over the past couple of years, for suppliers who were re-audited, but, Unilever notes, "while these audits present us with a snapshot in time, they do not communicate the full story." Ongoing local engagement and constant vigilance are key to making sustainable change.

This inaugural Human Rights report ends with Unilever's directional objectives for the coming three years. These includes a intention to create a set of quantitative metrics, noting  "more attention needs to be given to measuring social profit and loss". Uh oh. I hope this doesn't mean that human rights impacts will be converted to $ or Euros or £ a la Kering EP&L - which could turn the focus from people and lives to endless number-crunching and bottom lines. But I certainly am in favor of a methodology that helps us understand the true measure of social impact - positive and negative - of corporations and it's possible that Unilever's dialogue-based approach may held create breakthrough in this area.

All in all, while this report, as a first report, demonstrates a maturity of approach, there are many areas where Unilever must reach even deeper and embed robust systematic sustainable change and find creative and meaningful ways to measure progress. In the meantime, hats off to Unilever for all that has been done so far and triple ice creams all round for everyone who worked on this report. It's a text book for advancing and promoting human rights and a fascinating read, presented in an optimistic way. As the report notes: "The work ahead is significant but not insurmountable."

Read this report. It's worth a half hour of your time.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing your Sustainability Report? Contact elaine:   

Friday, June 12, 2015

Will GRI's new strategy work?

GRI has taken on a big role: "Empowering Sustainable Decisions." The new tagline of GRI's 2015-2020 strategy is rather broad brush. GRI is aiming to reach beyond the way organizations collate and report sustainability information to the place where the market actually thinks about what to do with the information that's ordered into neat performance indicators and creatively designed into sustainability reports. At first glance, this is a bit of a wishy-washy strategy, far less concrete and quantitative than we might have expected GRI to deliver, especially since other organizations in this space are driving forward in very measurable ways, pushing the uptake of reporting and disclosure in different forms, whether it be emissions, water or supply chain (CDP), 10-K or 20-F disclosures (SASB) or value creation (IIRC) and more. GRI, who has always been about driving the uptake of reporting, is now re-purposing itself to drive the uptake of using reporting. 

What pushed GRI in this direction? Clearly it has something to do with GRI's new leadership. Michael Meehan, who is just a couple of months short of completing one year at the helm of GRI. In my conversation with Michael earlier this week, he told me: " I come from the technology space. When I came to this market, some things were glaringly obvious. One was the lack of collaboration. In fact, there was more of an adversarial approach. Many organizations working in the same space but not getting along. It's understandable up to a point, there's competition for funding, resources, attention.  But this was not serving the market best. The corporate world and the policy world needs us to get along. There is going to continue to be fragmentation down the road, we are not going to stop seeing new frameworks, new approaches, new ways of working. What we have to do is change our frame of reference to help organizations and markets move forward more effectively in this context."

The new strategy has four pillars:

Enabling smart policy: More advocacy work and collaborative work with policy-makers, policy influencers and organizations around the world to embed sustainability-based factors into how things get decided and done.
More reporters, better reporting: The communicated elevation of GRI to "standard setter" and its continued uptake among the potential reporting community.
Moving beyond reports: New ways of using the report output as input, with a little help from technology, Big Data, integrated and accessible information flows.
Innovation and collaboration: Driving greater innovation in the area of sustainability disclosure and use of sustainability information.

These pillars build on the heritage of GRI as "the pioneer of the sustainability reporting process" and express an expansion of the scope of the role that GRI sees itself playing moving forward. But actually, it's more than expansion. It's more than "more of the same but different". It's different. It's a rebirth and it's as risky as it is bold. In essence, in plain language, I believe the GRI might be saying something like this: Hey folks, despite the fact that almost all we have ever talked about is reporting, we have now seen the light. Reporting is not the end-game. What you do with reporting outputs is the end-game. Now we have realized this, we are going to transform what people do with reporting outputs. This is an end to the era of asking who reads reports. This is a new era where we ask how can we use the reporting process and disclosures to make better decisions. We can help transform public policy, markets, and the way everyone makes decisions. Come with us. Use us. Work with us."

This is a paradigm shift and it's actually quite clever. Other organizations have not really claimed this empowering space. Other organizations have, like GRI, been providing tools, helping to get disclosures out there, relying on the inevitability of transparency as a catalyst for change, which it is. And it works, up to a point. Many times, just by asking the questions and analyzing the data for sustainability reports, companies start to change. But at the same time, catalysts need reagents (I did an Open University course once in basic chemistry, believe it or not.) GRI's new strategic focus adds the reagent. No-one else is doing this systematically, as far as I am aware.  I believe GRI's new strategy may just be one of those things that you hear and say, hmm, that's so obvious. But for GRI, it's quite a shift. 

In recent years, GRI has been outpaced by a dynamic market that pulled companies in many, often conflicting directions in terms of sustainability disclosure. The fragmentation of the market has intensified, and according to Michael Meehan , it's not going to stop. Rather than try to dominate the reporting space, GRI now wants to harness and grow the energies in that space to deliver better outcomes. GRI calls this Empowering Sustainable Decisions. 

But, to empower implies full trust in GRI as a leader in understanding how we can not only measure, quantify and report sustainability impacts but also improve them by integrating sustainability into all processes. Empowering sustainable decisions implies that ultimately, it's the GRI reporting process and framework that is key to all that we might be able to decide in our sustainable world. The trick is what you do with it after you reported it. But where does GRI get it's legitimacy to claim this empowerment platform? 

GRI sees itself as a launch pad for innovation, but so far, innovation has not been immediately recognizable as GRI DNA. In many cases, GRI has been left out of the running in the most innovative approaches in sustainability accounting today. The Integrated Reporting movement has entirely side-stepped GRI and new, sexy integrated reports are as far from GRI as they are from actually being integrated. The entire sector discussion has whooshed over the head of GRI. SASB has cornered that space, and the smart selection of Michael Bloomberg as the SASB Chair has brought SASB the very first practical application of a SASB standard in Bloomberg's  2014 Impact Report. The whole natural capital accounting world has moved beyond the GRI frame of reference and WRI/WBCSD/CDP have driven new sustainability approaches in several sectors. Becoming a launch-pad for innovation in sustainability decision making is therefore no small ask. And as for collaboration, it takes more than a strategy to make this work. It takes others who want to collaborate. Michael Meehan already hinted that the affinity for collaboration in this space so far is not terribly exciting and creating any sort of common ground will continue to be an uphill battle. And as for better reporting, well, don't get me started, as Billy Crystal said about 3,000 times in  Mr. Saturday Night. The diplomatic way of referring to better reporting is that there is an ocean of opportunity to improve the quality of disclosures and of reporting. GRI has skillfully avoided doing anything tangible to improve the quality of reporting, focusing only on the quality of reporting frameworks and the quality of reporters through GRI training. In terms of influencing policy, although some successes have been chalked up, GRI does not figure as the framework of choice in some of the leading policy declarations we have seen in the past few years, such as the European Directive on Non-Financial Disclosure.  

The new strategy, empowering everything, is therefore going to be a real stretch. But it's the right stretch. And let's face it, GRI has a few credits in the bank to give us hope, if not yet total confidence, that GRI can pull this off. After all, GRI has led the sustainability reporting movement, there can be no doubt about that. Even if the European Directive is a little vague, as was Paragraph 47 at Rio+20 before it, there can be no doubt that GRI has steered the agenda and positively influenced outcomes that achieved something if not everything. With G4, GRI placed material impacts in high-res, and that catapulted materiality to center-stage of the discourse, well beyond the leverage that had been achieved by AccountAbility some years earlier. Even if companies are still not quite comfortable with focus - relevant transparency as I call it - we can see an emerging shift toward material disclosures in favor of any and every and all disclosures. GRI has maintained the multi-stakeholder aspect of its approach for broad legitimacy, which, despite some wobbles, remains an achievement in this space, unlike, for example, the IIRC that is dominated by investment portfolios. As Michal Meehan told me: "The multi-stakeholder approach is so valuable. It ensures you have a very considered approach to what information is relevant and necessary. It leads to users believing that the data selection is trustworthy. It means that users of reported information can trust the process that defined how the data is created. We need to make sure everyone has a voice."

On balance, then, we can afford to give GRI a couple of years to see if the new focus is starting to shape up. Some elements are in place - a very strong advocacy team, an expansive network and increasing uptake of G4. Also, we all recognize a sense of underlying frustration that is sometimes expressed around the fact that, if reporting is actually mainstream, why have we not fixed the world? Perhaps GRI and the empowering piece is what's going to make the difference. I asked Michal Meehan how he expects to measure success. What will be different in 2020 when we have the "how did we do" conversation? Michael said: "I have  a whole load of KPIs that we could put in place - but to be honest, I want to shoot for a world where you don't have sustainability professionals and other leaders in organizations sitting in silos. I am hoping to see companies integrating sustainability into all business decisions. When GRI first started up, we had to convince everyone that sustainability is important. Now, people get it. What they need is better tools to integrate sustainability into the way they make decisions."

A word of caution, however, before we get too euphoric. Let's not get so caught up being empowering that we lose sight of where we came from: the need for organizations to account for their impacts on the lives of all stakeholders (and not just their bank accounts), as the key to creating positive and sustainable change in the world on the planet. Let's not get so empowered that we forget that, at the core, we have still got to grind through the task of delivering sustainability disclosures and/or reports that are robust, relevant and balanced. 

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing YOUR Sustainability Report? Contact elaine:   
Related Posts with Thumbnails