Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why YOU HAVE to attend.......

..... the fourth annual Smarter Sustainability Reporting conference. It's on February 24th, 2015 in London.  It's THE annual conference all about sustainability reporting that I chair every year. No, it's not just for reporting geeks, though geeks are thoroughly welcome.

And the reason YOU HAVE to attend is that, for three years now, we have held these totally amazing, informative, content-rich, expertise-packed, opinion-forming, insight-generating, brain-cell-activating, networking-supporting conferences and we still do not have the answer to the question: What is Smarter Sustainability Reporting? We've debated, discussed, shared, chaired, talked, balked, asked, answered, thought, contemplated, ruminated, instigated, irritated, cajoled, encouraged, suggested, digested and just about everything else you do and don't do at conferences... and we still don't have a definitive answer. That's sad. We may have had an answer in the second conference, but then the world changed and we went back to the drawing board at conference three. At this, the fourth annual, we simply have to have an answer. Maybe YOU are the one who can help?

We have a great line-up of expert speakers and panelists - and still more to confirm.

  • Nelmara Arbex, Chief Advisor on Innovation in Reporting, Global Reporting Initiative (GRI
  • Sarah Grey, Markets Director, International Integrated Reporting Council, IIRC
  • Steve Kenzie, UK Network Secretariat, Global Compact Network
  • Simon Howard, Chief Executive Officer, UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association (UKSIF)
  • Dr. Paul Toyne, Sustainability Director, Balfour Beatty Construction Services
  • Louise Tyson, Head of Reporting, BP
  • Katie Buchanan, Head of Sustainability and Reporting, Virgin Media
  • Irene Jakobi, Sustainability Manager, Telekom Austria
  • Mardi McBrien, Managing Director, Carbon Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB)
  • Shaun Davis, Group Director of Safety, Health, Wellbeing &  Sustainability, Royal Mail
  • Crystal Crawford, Corporate Responsibility Manager, Liberty Global
  • Verity Lawson, Sustainability Reporting Manager, British American Tobacco
  • Michaela Rose, Sustainability Advisor, Forum for the Future

You would think that these fantastic experts would have ALL the answers but I can promise YOU, they can't do it on their own. They need YOU.

How do YOU define Smarter Sustainability Reporting? What makes smart smarter? And what makes reporting reporting? From GRI G4 to integrated reports to carbon disclosures to investor interest to innovation to local/global to transparency, creativity and materiality and a whole lot more, we'll be looking to get at the answer that has been evading tens of speakers and hundreds of delegates since the start of our conference series. Do YOU know? Are YOU harboring a totally intelligent response that we are all waiting for? Are YOU willing to share? Will YOU come to the conference and enlighten all of us? 

If YOU decide to come and help us out, I can offer YOU a discount (being the chair has some privileges) and I can promise to be eternally grateful. And so will everybody else. YOUR presence and contribution is absolutely what will make the difference.

That's not to say that in three years of conferences we haven't answered other questions about reporting, the reporting landscape, trends, challenges, risks and opportunities. A mix of practitioner and subject-matter experts, we have always had rich debate and generated a host of action-oriented insights. The feedback from attendees has always been strong. Each conference has been remarkable. The desire to share and learn more about what's going on in reporting is obviously very much alive for both reporting geeks and reporting non-geeks. That's why we keep doing it. 

You may be wondering by now, what's the point of having a conference every year that can't answer its own question? I remember someone quoting some smart famous person who said: if you keep doing the same things, you keep getting the same results. Or something like that, probably more elegantly put. Which is exactly why we continue to shake things up every year. No two conferences are the same. We have a different agenda, different speakers, different round-table talk sessions, different panel discussions and different areas of focus. We don't keep doing the same things but we still don't have the answer to this really truly completely fully exceptionally elusive question: What is Smarter Sustainability Reporting? Obviously, we have been missing something. Yes. We have been missing YOU. So, please come. Please share. Please tell us YOUR answer. Please help make this conference even  more remarkable. 

So: Block out the date in your diary. Contact me for a 15% discount code. Register. Get prepared to share. And watch this space in the run-up to the conference for more posts in conversation with some of our speakers.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at to help make your G4 reporting  even better.   

Monday, October 20, 2014

Summing up Sustainability!

Novus International released the company's sixth annual online Sustainability Report just recently, this time in accordance with GRI G4 at core level.

Novus International, Inc. is a privately-owned feed ingredients company, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., serving customers in nearly 100 countries around the world. A global leader in developing animal health and nutrition solutions, Novus products include feed supplements, additives and many specialty ingredients that help animals digest food better and improve their well-being. All of the products that Novus develops and markets to livestock farmers, small and large, around the world have sustainable benefits - improving feed efficiency, enhancing yield and quality, reducing costs and taking high levels of waste out of the supply chain. Both in established markets that face new economic and regulatory challenges on a daily basis, and for smallholder farmers in emerging markets where Novus has developed a strong presence, this can mean the difference between a successful, sustainable livelihood and hardly any livelihood at all. A more efficient farming operation can be the key not only to surviving but to thriving for many Novus customers.

Inherently sustainable products and services
Novus delivers products and services that are inherently sustainable and improve the efficiency of the entire food chain. In the 2013 report, Novus sums up several of the positive impacts achieved through the company's core business activity. One of my favorite examples is a story about the outcomes of the C.O.W.S. program.

Comfort. Oxidative balance. Well-being. Sustainability.

Over the past three years, Novus invested in a groundbreaking study, the largest of its kind in the world, to assess animal husbandry practices in the dairy industry, and the subsequent implications for both animal welfare and productivity. Novus maintains a team of qualified technicians, who work closely with farm owners, nutritionists, herd managers and veterinarians to understand herd practices and the impacts on cow comfort and productivity. Between 2010 and 2013, Novus assessed 75,000 cows and 400 farms, some multiple times. The results provide incredible insight into performance by size of farm, region, and general management practice, and help understand the bottlenecks that affect cow comfort and ultimately, dairy farm profitability. Novus repeated assessments at over 20 farms, thereby understanding the measure of improvement that was achieved following the implementation of changes made by farm owners after they were presented with herd information. The detailed assessment data helped them understand where productivity bottlenecks were occurring in their farm management practices.

Just one outcome story (and there are many) from this massive undertaking is about a family-owned dairy in New York that, in just one year, maintained milk production while reducing culling rate, halving the prevalence of lameness and knee injuries (which reduce milk production), and delivering improved milk quality for higher-profit sales. In several cases, data from the C.O.W.S. study was instrumental in helping farmers convince the banks that there is a good business case for making a loan to enable farmers to invest in efficiency improvements. In some cases, this made the difference between farmers continuing to produce or closing up shop. This is about sustainable value delivered through the core business, and summing up the research and outcomes of 75,000 cow assessments is one of the truly interesting parts of this report.

The report also contains many other examples of how Novus, through its core products and services, has enabled enhanced customer productivity and profitability. In doing so, Novus makes a strong contribution to overall food availability and cost-efficient food supply chains around the world.

Transitioning to G4 and material focus
The report is somewhat of a transitional report, making the change from GRI G3 reporting at B level for the past few years now, to a more ambitious report using the G4 framework, including consideration and declaration of material issues and the start of a more strategic approach to overall sustainability performance. 

One of the things I have always admired about Novus and the 50 or 60 people I have got to know during the time I have been working with the company is the deep sense of vision and mission. 

People talk this. They work the vision. It's not something I just see in a document somewhere. The many sales people out in the different markets and the extensive research teams in the U.S. and Spain describe their roles and ongoing activities in terms of the degree to which they are contributing to global food security. This plays out in the many conversations I have each year with many individuals around the Novus world. 

In preparation for this report, Novus assessed the issues that matter most, starting with a Materiality Map of more than one hundred potentially relevant areas of material impact. After discussion with stakeholders and internal reviews, Novus created a set of five core material sustainability impacts that reflect the way Novus both makes a contribution and manages its own performance.

The alignment of material impacts and G4 material Aspects, as well as Performance Indicators reported, can be found in the GRI G4 Content Index.

Materiality the heart of the compass
At the heart of the sustainability priorities compass are Novus customers and the sustainable contribution that Novus makes to ensuring they do well, as shown above in the C.O.W.S. story. This is by far the most important and most significant opportunity for Novus, and, by focusing on how customers can do better, Novus does better. And inherently, the world food chain, society in general and the environment all benefit. Reductions in nitrogen emissions from animal livestock, for example, is an outcome of using Novus products. One of the challenges, of course, is knowing how to measure these outcomes, and in preparation for the Summing Up Sustainability Report, many different measures were reviewed and assessed, and this will continue to be refined as Novus moves forward. 

Sustainable animal agriculture is also an important impact for Novus. The agriculture sector, despite its critical importance for our sustainable future, faces many challenges, not least the fact that agri-professions are apparently not as sexy as they used to be. With 70% of the global population migrating to city-living by 2050, as some projections point out, the need for agriculture to be and stay state-of-the-art is even more critical than ever. With 30% - 40% of food production being wasted before it even gets to the consumer, the need to employ skilled people, science-based solutions and enabling technology is no less critical. Novus identifies with these industry challenges and accepts its role in helping attract new talent to agriculture and supporting development scholarships for many agri-students around the world. 

Employee well-being
Another thing that has always impressed me about Novus is the attention paid to employee well-being through the Novus Live Well Program. Employees who subscribe to Live Well gain many personal incentives and benefits, simple by doing things that help keep them and their families fit and healthy. Employees participate in fun, healthy lifestyle events, often as part of teams, and this also contributes to an open and interactive networked culture within Novus. In return for investment in a workplace that supports healthy lifestyles, in addition to organizational and employee productivity benefits, Novus has experienced a reduction in healthcare costs. Win-win all around.  

As always, I recommend you take a look at the Novus International report and.... yes.... give feedback!

Disclosure: Novus International is a valued client and I worked on this report, the fourth I have supported for Novus during a time of significant business change and development for the company. Each year has been fascinating and none more fascinating than the last. 

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at to help make your G4 reporting  even better.   

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Frustrations with online reporting

As techy as I am, and I am reasonably digitally-literate, I suppose, for my age (as my kids would say about anyone over 35), there is something about online reports that doesn't work for me. 

It's fabulous to have information accessible but for me, a report that is entirely online with no possibility to download the full or at least a summary is a turn-off. I was travelling last week in Europe and internet access is not always easy. Free WiFi in my hotel gave such a weak signal that I abandoned it. In other places, international roaming costs an arm and a leg. I have a personal hotspot deal that provides 400MB for around $10 and that's pretty good, but for a heavy user such as me (not games or movies, just regular work type surfing, downloading reports (:)), emailing and a few apps), that barely covers half a day. Local or international data bundles are not always available and when they are, the price per mega is far more. Travelling is the one time that I have time to look at things I don't have time to look at when I am under deadline pressures. Flying time is perfect - oops, no internet on flights. I have about another 50 hours of flying and airport time coming up in November - most of that is free-WiFi-less. No online reports. I have no idea what free or low-cost internet access is like in other parts of the world outside of Europe and the U.S. and a few other places I have traveled. I expect it's even harder or costlier to hook up outside your own home in many places. So, why do companies insist on providing sustainability reports that can only be viewed online? This is so restrictive. Financial reports are never only online (I believe) - there is always a downloadable document. 

Don't get me wrong, online is great and opens up access to many - including consumers - that reports wouldn't otherwise reach. Online reports provide opportunities for feedback and dialogue in real-time - page by page - much better than asking someone to provide feedback about an entire report if they have read only a couple of sections. Sharability of online content is also a big advantage for expanding the reach of your report. But can't we have the best of both worlds? 

The report is a long down-scroll webpage with highlights. Side-scrolling from each section takes you to more detail.

But, when you go for the detail, you lose the report.

For example, I selected to "learn more" about sustainability education for employees. I left-scrolled. This brought me to another page with a font so small I had to enlarge my screen.

After the short text, there is a clickable link to a "Related Article" which brings you to another part of the Annie's website that is outside of the report content. Browser back-click to get back to the report. Repeat endless times to actually read any content. Don't bother. Simply give up. 

No site-map, no contents list, no index. For some, this may be a great online experience. For myself, a professionally-oriented reader of reports (and I understand that I might be outside Annie's target audience, even though I am positively disposed towards organic food :)), it really doesn't work for me and I give up once I see that I am getting nowhere fast. While I commend this organization, and I really do, for reporting on sustainability and doing so quite attractively and creatively, as well as achieving some sustainability performance plusses, I find this reporting format frustrating. (At least it's not a flip-book. Don't get me started on those.....). A small PDF download for me to read offline in an orderly and sequential way would make all the difference.  

Annie's is just one example of many companies that seem to believe that the progressive and PC thing today is to report exclusively online. I could give many more report examples, some that have easier navigation, some that are impossible, some long, some short, some with webby pyrotechnics and pop-ups and pop-outs and dynamic menus and charts and more. No matter how fancy they are, I can never read them on a flight, it costs me an arm and a leg to read them while I am travelling, and I have to spend (and waste) time clicking away for everything I want to glance at. 

The real value of online reports should be real-time accessibility and interactability. Accessibility is limited, as I have noted, but if your report is online, then why not use this as an opportunity to invite feedback online and generate some dialogue? A bit of talkback may do the company some good. A learning opportunity. The Annie's report interactivity is one-way. It has several share buttons - you can pinterest it, google it, facebook it and even email the URL to all your closest friends.... but you can't comment on it. You could go to Twitter and interact with @AnniesCEO there, but who can be bothered? Twitter is not the best tool for providing report feedback. 

This rant-post therefore is both an expression of my frustration to all online-only reporters and a plea to you/them to go the extra mile and publish reports in a way that make it easier for a wider range of stakeholders to use them. I LOVE reports. I hate having to miss out because online just isn't there yet. 

PS: Maybe we have missed the boat with Annie's. The company has now been bought by General Mills. At least General Mills has a downloadable PDF sustainability report. However, I am not so optimistic about the chances of Annie's brands competing strongly with Cheerios for page space so we might just find ourselves wanting the online report back :-)

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at to help make your G4 reporting  even better.   

Friday, October 17, 2014

Insights from the 2014 Humboldt Berlin CSR Conference

There's nothing like a good conference to add back a little buzz to those old brain-cells. Especially ones that have been somewhat numbed by non-stop sleep-depriving work on G4 reports for our clients. Ha Ha. Joking of course, we LOVE reporting. But we also love great conferences.

This last week I was honored to both speak at and attend the 6th International Conference on Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, organized by the incredible gentleman and scholar, Professor Dr. Joachim Schwalbach. The conference drew a massive crowd, many academics - teachers and students - from a range of impressive institutions, as well as corporate and other delegates. It was a refreshing two days, full of thought-provoking debate. 

I took part in three sessions. As a panelist in the a parallel session on Day One, moderated by Dr. Carol Adams, and as a moderator for a plenary and parallel session on Day Two. Of course, when you are involved, it is difficult to remember everything that went on. It's a bit like trying to recall what the food was like at your own wedding. However, here are a few insights:

Evolution of corporate reporting 

The role of Stock Exchanges in driving disclosure: We were treated to an opening presentation by Sonia Favaretto of the Brazilian BM&F BOVESPA Stock Exchange, who demonstrated that the "report or explain" approach for listed companies had boosted corporate disclosure in Brazil quite substantially. This enlightened Exchange has driven reporting reach for more than a couple of hundred of the larger Brazilian companies, in line with the Stock Exchange's mission "to promote sustainability and private social investment aligned with strategy". I believe this is a lead that many more Stock Exchanges will follow in the future, although at present, a study by Canadian Corporate Knights Capital found that only 128 (less than 3%) of the 4,609 largest companies listed on the world’s stock exchanges disclose data on basic sustainability indicators such as employee turnover, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, injury rate, pay equity, waste and water. In the meantime, BMFBOVESPA publishes a list of who has reported and who has not, and the reasons they gave for not doing so. 

The legal implications of the newly adopted EU reporting directive: Dr. Birgit Speisshofer was the lawyer on the panel, and after the usual jokes about lawyers, she gave us a detailed legal-lens view of the implications of the EU Directive for disclosure of non-financial and diversity information by certain large companies - expected to affect around 6,000 companies in Europe. Without going into all the details, it seems that this legislation is rather flexible, including some leeway for member states' adoption to meet local preferences, and has several fuzzy areas that can exempt certain reporting requirements for companies for whom reporting may not be the height of excitement. So, while the spirit of the law will drive reporting forward, I have no doubt, the pace, quality and consistency of reporting may well remain challenged in Europe. 

Reporting consistency and comparability: One of the key aspects of reporting that held the conversation for a while in this session was the notion of comparability. Do current reporting frameworks facilitate comparability and did they ever? My view on this is quite firm. There is no comparability (between companies) today, there never has been and there probably never will be. Take any small selection of reports and try to compare performance data either across sectors or within a sector and you come up with almost as many different versions of performance disclosure as you have reports. Even trying to compare one company against its own prior performance is often a challenge. Current reporting frameworks would have to be far more prescriptive in order to drive consistency and comparability. And it is precisely such prescriptiveness that companies fight to avoid. Why is comparability so important? Because we all want a sense of whether progress is being made, companies share a competitive spirit and investors look for relative assessments for their portfolio trade-offs. Saying there is no comparability when there are so many ratings and rankings out there that claim to have "the formula" for evaluating relative corporate sustainability performance may be tantamount to heresy. But, I say, there is no comparability. Burn me at the stake. Don't waste your time looking for comparability. Look instead for evidence of robust process, relevant disclosure around material impacts, consistency of targets and reported performance over time and stakeholder interactions that deliver confidence that change is being achieved.

Who is the audience and does it matter? As usual, the question of who reports are for, who the audience is and who "actually" reads them came up once again. Well, you know by now that I say reports are not meant to be read. They are meant to be written. And when they are written, they can be used by a wide range of stakeholders. Recall that stakeholders are often multi-hatted. An employee can be a shareholder can be an environmental activist can be a local community member can be a disabled person can be married to a local policy-maker can be mother or father to an investment analyst, blogger, journalist or other professional. The stakeholder concept is not what it used to be. Neat compartmentalization of stakeholder interests is now not an exact science. The boundaries are getting fuzzier. Information channels are getting re-wired. Targeted messaging for the purpose of dialogue and engagement is not the sole remit of a sustainability report. We would do well to recall that a report is designed to account for impacts. The impacts define the stakeholders and not the other way around. Although I will bet there are plenty who disagree with me.   

For an additional overview and perspective on this panel and others, see a post from Dr. Carol Adams, who moderated the session.

Reputation, CSR & Innovation

The Reputation Economy is alive and well: We opened this session with a presentation from sharp-thinker Leslie-Gaines-Ross, Chief Reputation Strategist at Weber Shandwick, who focused on the Reputation Economy and the role of the CEO, quoting a stat that 50% of reputation equity is created by the CEO. The value of reputation in today's complex info-dynamic world cannot be underestimated and the challenges of managing reputation in a way that is constructive (and not construed as manipulative) require new skills, and that means more than CEOs tweeting and sharing family photos. The CEO reputation is as important as ever, according to Leslie, and in a world where trust in business is not always so positive, the CEO can play a critical role. 

Reputation should work inside the company as well as outside the company: As reputation leaders, CEOs have the opportunity to drive corporate reputation internally as well. That may sound like a non-sequitur - isn't reputation external? - but it's true. Susanne Marell of Trust-Barometer-fame Edelman (Berlin)  says that employees want CEOs to speak up for them, they want CEOs to be their representatives, people of whom they can be proud. No wonder Glassdoor rates CEOs as well as companies. CEOs would do well to remember that their audience is not only those to whom they do not pay salaries. 

CEOs are not recruited with CSR in mind: Brigitte Lammers of Egon Zehnder astounded us all with her statement that, in the hiring process for CEOs, no requirement for the "new" CSR-type skills relating to engagement or stakeholder or reputation management are sought. Instead, CEOs are hired for traditional qualities such as decision-making, P&L orientation, experience, profit maximization etc. So you tell me, if business is going to change the world, how is it that CEOs are not changing? Next time you are in the market for a CEO, think about what kind of company she has to lead. Ha Ha. Subtle. More women CEOs may just be the best of all worlds.  

Thank you to Joachim Schwalbach for this photo

Reputation, CSR & Communications

We opened this panel up with a question to five experts.

Everyone in business today and in society in general faces a mass of information in all forms, via all channels 24/7/365. How do you get people to pay attention to your CSR message?

Simple question. Complex answer. Breaking through the noise is not such a POC. It's more than publishing a Sustainability Report and expecting people to find it. Five panelists offered great insights about how to help make your CSR message stand out from the crowd, increase trust and enhance the reputation of your company. 

Berhnard Schwaeger of Robert Bosch GmbH suggested that, in addition to an annual Sustainability Report, maintaining consistent dialogue and sharing information, including talking about difficult or challenging topics, is the way to do it. The Bosch Sustainability Blog is an example of the way Bosch walks the talk. 

Leslie Gaines-Ross is acutely aware of the multiplicity of messaging and communication channels and says that breaking through the noise means (appropriately) using all available channels - social media, video and more traditional channels - in the optimum way. 

Gabi Faber-Wiener, a respected voice in business ethics and founder of the Centre for Responsible Management in Vienna says, perhaps not surprisingly, if you want to get your CSR message through, don't call it CSR! Who wouldn't agree? 

Mette Morsing of Copenhagen Business School reiterated that "communication is action" and engaging in partnerships with third parties and having them endorse you for your work and involvement is a way to ensure your message gets told. 

Finally, our second expert of the day from Edelman Berlin, Bernd Buschhausen, offered a little relief to corporate CEOs by saying that the CEO should not be the only one talking CSR - employees and external partners can also be fantastic ambassadors of your CSR message. 

Whatever ways you choose to get your CSR message through the sound barrier and bypass the tendency of the general media to report only shock and horror and avoid the good stories, all agreed that CSR communications should be relevant, engaging and inspirational. 

I couldn't help adding a word or two ten about reporting, being a reporting geek as I am known to be. Reporting may not be THE way to ensure that your message breaks through, but when people are looking for your message, it will ensure they find it. When people want to know about you, your Sustainability Report will make sure they get what you give. You can't make Mohammed come to the mountain, but when he gets there, you can make sure he drinks from the right well. Or whatever other mixed metaphor your prefer. Research has shown that reading a Sustainability Report increases the readers' trust in a company. A well-written, material-focused and forward-looking sustainability report is the story your stakeholders, internal and external are looking for. It's as indispensable having a website, a business card, a smartphone and ice-cream. It's part of the corporate package and its not in competition with any other company. It's the way you tell your unique corporate story and it's an essential element of Reputation, CSR and Communications. Now, why wouldn't everyone want a piece of that?


All in all, the Berlin CSR Conference was two days well spent and I have only scratched the surface in this post. Many plenaries, parallel sessions, awards, books, discussions, good food, drinks, music and even dancing made this conference one of the must-attend events of 2014. Fortunately, we only have two years to wait for the next one! See you here in 2016.   

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at to help make your G4 reporting  even better.   

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Serious Play with Caesars

As you know, we LOVE reports. And we LOVE to have FUN. So working on a report that's fun is exactly what Serious Play is about for us. For Caesars Entertainment, it's pretty much the same. As a company whose entire DNA is all about inspiring grown-ups to play, Caesars takes corporate citizenship as seriously as it takes the memorable entertainment experiences it provides for its guests.

And here you have it, Caesars Entertainment's second G4 (core) report now published. And it's called Serious Play. 

and the infographic of 2013 highlights

As with any self-respecting G4 report, material issues are clearly stated:

And the issues link to G4 material Aspects and performance indicators in this chart, so that it all hangs together as a G4 report should do.

Now, getting past the G4 basics,  you will notice a mix of serious and play in the Caesars report this year, supported by an outstanding contribution in corporate citizenship - including achievement of some ambitious environmental goals. At Caesars, corporate citizenship is not just a project or something people do in addition to their work. It's the way people work. After conversations with more than fifty managers and staff at Caesars, in the preparation of this report, I can personally testify to a spirit of citizenship - and fun - as well as strategic vision, that is rarely found in  organizations. 

The Caesars Code of Commitment was created in 2000 and at the time, led the industry in establishing a framework of behavior that continues to guide the way Caesars work. 

Today, this supports an entire strategic approach to citizenship that is embedded in everything the company does. Some examples:

Horseshoe Cincinnati: The report showcases the new city-integrated casino that opened up in 2013 in Cincinnati, and the ways in which this downtown casino-entertainment property has become an important contributor to city life. More than 92% of the 1,500 strong workforce is from the Cincinnati area, 75% of contracts for goods and services are locally sourced and a large part of this is with diverse suppliers, and during construction, nearly 37% of all contracts worth more than $55 million were awarded to minority or women-owned construction firms. Kevin Kline, Horseshoe Cincinnati GM, supports the city in a variety of ways. For example, he co-chairs the Cincinnati Mayor’s Economic Inclusion Advisory Council to help make inclusion part of the Cincinnati business culture and develop best practices for achieving greater diversity in city contracts. Members of the management team at Horseshoe Cincinnati maintain board level positions with 18 local city and community organizations and the property is a home to many fundraising events for local charities. Horseshoe Cincinnati also takes part in Caesars CodeGreen environmental strategy and made a strong contribution to delivering goals of energy and emissions reductions, water use reduction and increased waste diversion this year. This is Serious Play in Cincinnati, showing how doing business with a Code of Commitment mindset generates positive social, environmental and economic outcomes for all.  

Harrah's Cherokee: Caesars' partnership with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation dates back to 1997, and in 2013, the partners completed a $633 million expansion project representing the largest hospitality development project in the U.S. It was fascinating for me to research and hear about the way revenues from casino and hospitality offerings have transformed the lives of the members of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. This is how it's described in the report:

"Most Native American communities reside on reservation properties, far from mainstream economic activity. As a result, it has been difficult for many Native American tribes to gain access to capital and community services such as education, healthcare and employment opportunities. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows, for example, that 29.1% of Native Americans (and Alaska Natives) were in poverty in 2012 versus 15.9% in the nation as a whole. We believe that our partnership with Native American tribes makes a contribution to the prosperity and perpetuity of the Native American way of life that serves the interests of our society as a whole." I think this is the ultimate goal of corporate citizenship - doing business ethically, transparently, in partnership and driving social benefits. 

It's not all serious, though, at Cherokee. There's also lots of fun going on. That's serious fun. Several Caesars properties take part in the annual National Breast Cancer Pink Week where everything from poker table felts to golf balls to balloons and more are colored pink. Harrah's Cherokee won an award among Caesars properties for a magnificent Pink Week which included days such as Mammo Monday, Wacky Smack Wednesday and Bra Fight Friday where both employees and guests enjoy the fun while learning about breast cancer, remembering lost loved ones and making a contribution to support breast cancer research. The highlight of the week is the pageant. How many senior managers in how many organizations would get up on stage wearing a wacky bra designed by an employee? See how it happens at Cherokee.

Citizenship is Citizenship: One of the most touching things for me in the Caesars report is a description of how Caesars supports its employees to receive U.S. citizenship. There is a Caesars Citizenship Rewards Program for Las Vegas employees who become naturalized citizens of the United States. Caesars recognizes employees for their dedication and commitment to becoming naturalized citizens with a refund of up to 100% of the application. Around 250 employees have received this benefit to date. 

Caesars 2013-2014 Corporate Citizenship Report is full of examples of how Caesars engages in Serious Play in many other aspects of the company's daily life - whether this is taking a stand in public policy support for LGBT rights, climate change and more, supporting social causes through the Caesars Foundation and HERO Volunteer programs or leading the way in Responsible Gaming with a range of resources to raise awareness and provide assistance to those who need it. 

But I won't go into too much detail. You can guess why.... that's it... take a look and give feedback. You'll find a few surprises among the pages too.... just for fun.

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   or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at  to help make your G4 reporting  even better.   

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The G4 technobabble of Aspect Boundaries

One of the things that appears challenging for many reporters in G4 requirements to define material Aspect Boundaries. I just had a query on that this week from another consultant who is working an a client G4 report.  Here are the GRI disclosure requirements:

When you get past the techno-babble, you can see that reporters are asked to state the locations where material impacts occur. It's fairly easy to assume what was in the minds of the GRI G4 designers when they put this together. It's like this. Not all impacts are equal, and not all impacts are relevant to all parts of an organization. Some have an impact outside the organization, and, taking a value chain approach to sustainability, it's important to identify where your organization is accountable even though it is not directly in control. The GRI FAQ states: "Listing entities outside of the organization where impacts related to material Aspects occur, is the first step for reporters to show that they are aware of these impacts in their value chain."

One of a few examples in the G4 implementation manual refers, for example, to child labor in the supply chain. 

While child labor may be strictly controlled in direct company operations, it's much harder to control in the supply chain and the relevant material impact may be pinpointed there. The G4 expectation, therefore, is that companies would specifically identify impacts that occur outside the organization as well as inside, making a distinction between the two, so that stakeholders can be appropriately informed. 

At some level, this makes sense. It's part of the G4 transformation that requires companies to actually think about their material issues rather than auto-list boilerplate issues that mean everything to everybody. Now, reporters should think about who is affected outside the factory gate as well. Companies which analyze their material issues right down to specific localized impacts will probably have a better foundation for addressing the risks of  such issues and engaging more closely with local stakeholders to inform a strategic approach.  

However, this is proving to be rather challenging for many large reporters at a global level. Responses to G4-20 and G4-21 are lacking depth and showing signs of box-ticking in a way that undermines the true value of this kind of disclosure. Remember that the Aspect Boundary relates to a material Aspect, and each material Aspect requires a DMA - a disclosure on management approach describing why the Aspect is material and what the organization is doing about it. G4-20 and G4-21 are effectively extensions of the descriptions of the most material issues.

Material issues are not that simple, however. Almost every material issue that has an external impact also has an internal one and vice versa. Companies are having a hard time understanding the distinction between the two. The default seems to be that everything impacts everything and everybody and all company entities are affected. In G4-21, there is also a requirement to state the geographical location where external impacts occur. Well. GRI might just have suggested an auto-response for this. The Universe. 

Insurance company Metlife's G4 2013 Corporate Responsibility report was just published. Take a look Metlife's response to G4-201 and G4-21 to a some of their material issues. 

As you can see, everything is both material internally and externally and impacting pretty much everyone everywhere. Stakeholder groups (not entities) have been noted against each issue. Entities have not been stated so we can assume everything applies to the entire organization. 

It's not so easy to define where impacts occur. Employment and diversity are noted as only material internally. However, in some cases, with large companies, the impact of a diverse employment policy can be quite significant in local communities.  Many of the decisions taken in the Human Resources Department have broadly-felt impacts on society. Check out my book, CSR for HR. The stakeholder view of people management goes way beyond the impacts felt inside the organization. Metlife confirms this in the DMA for this diversity:

The impact of a diverse organization is also felt at the level of customers and in communities. With operations around the world, and more than 65,000 employees, perhaps Metlife's hiring and inclusion policies are having an impact at local level. Or maybe not materially so. It's an interesting thought - one that is probably answered through engagement with local stakeholders.  

What about public policy? Metlife calls this  both an internal and an external impact. I can understand the external part. In the DMA, Metlife writes:

This seems to indicate that the impact is external, rather than internal. So where is the internal impact? Could it be that engaging in public policy requires an internal effort  by the organization to understand and maintain positions on public policy, ensure staff are appropriately trained, manage the internal adjustments required as a result of regulatory changes etc? Could it be the effect on profit of political donations? It's possible. But Metlife has not mentioned this internal impact in its narrative, focusing on the external impacts of regulation. The performance indicator supporting this material issue that Metlife reports is G4-S06 which relates to the number of political donations made -  maybe this is then both internal (expenditure/profit) and external (political influence). Either way, deciding the exact Aspect Boundary of this material Aspect is not so straightforward. 

Metlife is not the only one....

Banco Santander in its G4 Comprehensive report for 2013  report adds a nice little matrix (it's in Portuguese but we'll get the gist).

Everything is material internally and externally (red triangles) , with the exception of the positive impacts of the bank on society (black circle) - indirect economic impacts and local community impacts. These are not considered to have an internal impact. In addition, in the report's GRI Content Index, Banco Santander notes different stakeholder groups that are affected by the different impacts. But no differentiation is made between entities and no geographic location is mentioned. Oh, and this report was verified by Deloitte. 

Dow Chemicals in its G4 comprehensive 2013 Annual Sustainability Report also has a nice little matrix. Dow is a global company with 53,000 people and products manufactured in 201 sites in 63 countries. Try breaking down Aspect Boundaries for each of those entities.

At Dow, then, all material impacts are internally material. Only three material impacts are external as well, affecting broader society - product safety, health and environment protection and community success. Issues such as water, sustainable agriculture and climate change are not noted as materially important outside the organization. I wonder how this analysis was performed and how material issues such as climate change and sustainable agriculture are not considered to be  material externally. Oh, and this report was verified by ERM. 

H&M Conscious Actions 2013 Sustainability Report fares no better on G4-20 and G4-21. The response to these disclosures is a webpage. But the webpage is the GRI index page. So you get into a G4-20 G4-21 loop -  and you never get to the actual disclosure. That's one way of avoiding having to think about this rather messy disclosure conundrum. 

Oh, and the H&M report was verified by Ernst and Young.

CVS Caremark's 2013 CSR Report includes a little more detail in this table contained in the content index. It clearly states that internal issues relate to all CVS Caremark's operations in the U.S. and that externally material issues are predominantly in the supply chain in China. This is getting closer to the G4-20 and G4-21 requirement.

But, with 19 material issues, this summary goes only part way to fully providing the Aspect Boundaries for each material Aspect. Also, in all the external issues reported, the company is noted as one of the affected stakeholders. But the company is an internal stakeholder. Hmm. A bit confusing. 

GRI's own G4 report has a fairly clear approach. Although geographic locations are not noted, there are some explanations as to what's material to whom. Most of the material impacts occur both externally and internally.  

Overall, then, I am not finding responses to G4 Aspect Boundaries especially helpful in many of the G4 reports I have reviewed so far.  I think this just as much a flaw of the framework as it is with reporters who can't be bothered to think about this more meaningfully or simply don't know how to respond.

The idea is good. 
Companies should identify how and where their operations are impacting external stakeholders. 
It's quite simple really.
But, the roundabout rather convoluted GRI-techno-babble of G4-20 and G4-21 dumbfounds companies and is leading to a bunch of stilted and meaningless disclosures. It's also dumbfounding report assurers - all of whom confirm that reports are in accordance when these basic general disclosures are not adequately reported. 

In G5, maybe it would be simpler to have just one disclosure. Forget internal impacts. Everything the company externally does affects it internally one way or another. There's not much point in stating that everything affects employees. 

My suggestion:

G5-20: State how and where your business activities materially affect external stakeholders throughout your value chain. 

Voila! Plain, simple, clear, helpful and tecnhobabbly-challenged.


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   or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm). Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at  to help make your G4 reporting  even better.   

Thursday, September 11, 2014

G4 goes MAD with Netafim

Why do we love our work? Because we get to help companies like Netafim tell their story. In this case, we all went a little MAD. That's not MAD like crazy cuckoo but MAD like Mass Adoption of Drip Irrigation. The more you know about drip, the more MAD you become. It's compelling, it's an imperative, it's the present and it's the future. Drip irrigation is about sustainable agriculture, efficient use of resources, water conservation, improved yields and quality of food crops and improved livelihoods for millions of large growers and smallholder farmers around the world. Drip irrigation is synonymous with Netafim Ltd, a group of thousands of dedicated, passionate individuals who come together with a collective mission to make the entire world MAD. (Nothing new here - Netafim has been the leading world pioneer of drip irrigation since 1965, check out Netafim's legacy website).

We love Netafim and we love MAD. And this is the report that we helped create for Netafim, describing the sustainability impacts of this MAD-oriented company.

Netafim's 2013 Sustainability Report is written in accordance with GRI's G4 guidelines at core level. It presents both Netafim's 2020 sustainability strategy and most material impacts and the stakeholder engagement process that led to defining both. The report also presents many case studies showing how Netafim is driving it's MAD strategy and the impacts that MAD has at individual and community levels. If you want to skip straight to the stories, the report has a hyper-linked highlights page that will whiz you off to India, Croatia, Brazil, Kenya, Cyprus, Australia and the U.S. and more, to meet with growers and farmers that have gained benefits through adopting drip irrigation, becoming just a little bit MAD.

Or you might prefer to navigate straight to Stockholm. Stockholm holds special significance for Netafim as last year, in 2013, Netafim was awarded one of the highest levels of recognition in the industry for its impacts on water sustainability and sustainable water management at Stockholm Water Week, the Stockholm Industry Water Award (SIWA). This year, in 2014, Netafim presented its spanking new strategy and report in Stockholm. 

You can read on the blog of Netafim's Chief Sustainability Officer, Naty Barak, a staunch MAD propounder, as you might expect, about his experiences in Stockholm, and view Netafim's electronic poster presented at Stockholm 2014 Water Week here.  

But let's get back to drip and being MAD about MAD. Many of you might not know much about drip irrigation and why it is so crucial as a contributing solution to many of the worlds feed-energy-water-land scarcity problems. If this applies to you, you can find a brief explanation of how drip drips in Netafim's report. 

Following extensive consultation with stakeholders, both ongoing as part of Netafim's active participation in many of the leading global collaborative platforms that have water security as their prime focus, and as part of a targeted engagement program to support the preparation of the company's strategic approach and materiality definition, Netafim presents this new report under the theme: At the Heart of the Food-Water-Land Nexus

We are hearing more and more about The Nexus these days, especially in the context of the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. It's not just one nexus. Sometimes it's the Food-Energy Nexus, sometimes, the Water-Energy Nexus. Netafim's MAD solutions have the biggest impacts in advancing food, water and land security and these are the three nexus elements that are predominantly relevant for Netafim. The nexus view considers not only each challenge as an individual challenge, but considers all of them as part of one Big Thing. The points at which these challenges interact are the points which offer the greatest global and local opportunities for leveraging smart solutions that deliver the greatest benefits for us and the planet. That's what drip irrigation does and that's why Netafim is totally all about MAD

In the run-up to the 2013 Sustainability Report, we helped facilitate stakeholder engagement at two levels: a large round-table discussion with a diverse group of stakeholders based in Israel where Netafim is headquartered, and a series of discussions with global experts in the sustainable agriculture and sustainable business fields. Experts such as Carlo Galli, Technical and Strategy Advisor, Water Resources at Nestlé, Gavin Power, Deputy Director, United Nations Global Compact, Alejandro Litovsky, Founder & CEO, Earth Security Initiative and Pasquale Steduto, Deputy Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa, FAO  provided their expert input and guidance about MAD and other aspects of Netafim's contribution, and you can read some of their comments in the report.

The result of these consultations and management deliberations was a strategic framework for 2020 and a set of most material impacts around which the 2013 Sustainability Report was structured. These topics and themes will guide and support Netafim's ongoing contribution to global sustainability in the coming years.  

One of the things that we love most about our work at Beyond Business is seeing the personal change and transformation that comes through sustainability culture and practices. Most Sustainability Reports describe what a "company" is doing and how managers and employees take action in the course of their roles. This is great, of course, but there is something special about seeing how the concept of sustainability extends beyond the workplace and into the consciousness of people and other facets of their lives. That's why my favorite part of this report is a piece from Netafim's Marketing Manager, Rachel Shaul. Rachel selected a project related to the impact of drip irrigation as part of academic studies at university, and she shares her insights after having interviewed women farmers in the Indian State of Gujarat. Rachel's perspectives are not just about advancing Netafim's irrigation business, they are about the personal change she experienced in engaging with women farmers, and the way their lives have improved. In the report, Rachel shares some of the comments that she recorded in her interviews, reminding us that sustainability is more than a project or a product or a business, it's about people and life in general. 

I recommend (of course !) that you take a look at the Netafim report and (of course!) give feedback. Maybe you also might become a little MAD.

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   or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)
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