Friday, September 21, 2007

Back to basics (2): Globalization and sustainability

For quite some time I do start my presentations with a slide that shows the famous graph of the world population growth in developed and developing countries. "Oh, that one again ;-(" the audience might think, but honestly, do we really understand the impact of what's in front of us?

China - although still applying a one-child policy - will grow by another 150 million people by 2050 (another one of those "rebound effects": due to a higher life span a full generation of Chinese people will "mathematically not have died" between 1990 and 2050). India will see another 500 million Indians until 2050, more than the population of whole Europe today. 90% of all kids below 18 years now grow up in developing countries - NINETY PER CENT! The sheer size of these numbers should make us think what that means in terms of sustainable development. Also, what does that say about tomorrow's markets? Here’s my take on it:

What would happen if the countries that are integrated in world markets today fail to integrate developing countries into the world markets? For sure, waves of migration, war for resources, new epidemics and negative effects on climate change strategies would be some of the effects. Our Western (and emerging) societies will simply not be able to cope with the overwhelming brutality of these effects. So, as failure would be a disaster, there is simply no other way than to accept the challenges of globalization and its world market logic. But how does that link with sustainability?

Isn't sustainability just simply a synonym for a situation where everybody on this planet has the opportunity to participate in (globalized) world markets without being restricted by any rule that favours one person or place over another? The terms fairness and balance come to mind as well. And isn't sustainable "development" not just the broad highway in front of us, aligned by stable crash barriers (meaning globally accepted and globally applicable rules of behaviour that ensure fairness and balance, based on transparency and openness)? The question that remains though: how much time do we still have to continue walking barefooted on that highway? That is the picture that I always have in mind when I read the latest about WTO's never ending tragic soap "Nightmare on
Doha Street". In that sense - for me - sustainable development is the blueprint for a successful implementation of globalization.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Anniversaries: ISO 14001 is 10

Stumbling across ISO 14001 certification figures a few days ago jogged my memory to the days when it was first released - I must admit that discovering 14001 was released 10 years ago this past June was a bit of shocker - time flies!

It was controversial back then. The standard had the backing of governments and many businesses were stongly incentivized to get on board with it. I remember when Ford and GM joined forces a year or two later and made it mandatory for any company providing products or services in their supply chain to become certified under ISO 14001.

But pushback came from companies and environmentalists who said that the standard was causing weaker performance - not stronger. Some companies in Japan, the US, and western Europe had already adhered to high levels of environmental management, and the ISO standard - built with wide global uptake in mind - actually lowered the bar instead of raising it. Of course, there were the to-be-expected complaints of cost and burden as well.

Some say that ISO 14000 has been a solution to many problems: unintentional trade barriers created by environmental standards; the inefficiency of command and control regulations; and the plethora of permits, inspections, regulations and standards faced by companies trading across international borders.

I think the standard has done much for environmental management overall - not the least by creating a standardized set of vocabulary, expectations, actions, and (10 years on) a worldwide infrastructure of practitioners that can help companies cope with their environmental risks.

But is it actually improving performance? Does anyone out there know of any studies or impact assessments of ISO 14000 certifications?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Back to basics (1): The value of transparency

Sometimes overwhelmed by so many different views, details, different priorities and cultural takes on sustainable development, I find it useful to really go back to the "heart of the matter", summarizing what we really need to achieve for a better future.

I'll start with an exercise that most of us go through at a certain moment of their career in GRI, trying to explain to others in not more than 60 seconds why GRI and sustainability reporting are so important. Here's my take on it:

"In today's globalized world transparency is absolutely fundamental to create trust, which is the basic ingredient to create partnerships (we already know that we will only be able to create sustainable change in partnerships!); only through partnerships continuous improvement will be possible, which finally is a necessary essential to create sustainable change. Accepting this logic simply means that without the right level and depth of transparency sustainable change will not be achieved.

Since we know that trust in most organizations is at an all-time low all over the world (open any newspaper on any day and just count how many articles you will find on this or somehow related topics), we need to work towards higher levels of transparency to recreate the necessary trust.

This is where using the GRI Framework can help. GRI facilitates the necessary dialog of all stakeholder groups from all over the world to define the aspects any organization should take into account while assessing how to close their own transparency gap. The problems we need to solve are global, so the format that structures the expected level of transparency to create sustainable change needs to be global as well. There is no other format than the GRI Framework that serves this purpose. So, why hesitate using it?"

We all need to decide if we can agree to this simple logic. Otherwise the other simple logic of W. Edwards Deming applies: "It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory!"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

ISO 14001 - on the menu in Asia

I was somewhat surprised to find out that International Organization for Standardization (ISO) does not officially track the number of certifications to its 14001 environmental management standard. All these years I have been jealous of ISO assuming that they can track certifications with ease due to the compliance oriented nature of their standard. We are have always struggled to track the users of the Sustainability Reporting Guidelines because they are a flexible framework - certifications are not required, nor are companies required to inform GRI (or anyone else) when they have issued a report based on the Guidelines.

Anyway, I stumbled across some data from the German Environment Agency (UBA) while surfing the web this evening that seems to be the closest thing we have to a tally of total certifications. They tracked just over 129,000 certifications worldwide by the start of 2007 - they claim this figure represents a rise of about 25% from the previous year. I took that as a good sign that ISO 14000 is still growing that strongly.

Organizations in Asian countries account for over 45% of certifications globally - with Japan and China in the number 1 and 2 spots respectively (approximately 20,000 certifications each), and South Korea, India, Taiwan, and Thailand all in the top 20.

The ususal suspects from western Europe can be found in the top 20 as well - Spain (11,000 certifications - good for #3 spot), Italy, Germany, UK, Sweden, France, and Switzerland. But possibly more interesting is the appearance of some new CEE nations rounding out the bottom of the table - Romania, Czech Republic, and Hungary make the top 20 for the first time with a combined certification total of nearly 5000.

The USA is 5th on the list with 8000 certifications, and Canada is 11th with nearly 2600. No African companies made the top 20, but the survey shows that South Africa has over 400 certifications to-date.

I wonder if reporting rates will or do follow ISO certification rates. Has anybody out there seen any correlation?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Frankfurt Motor Show: Environment on Parade

The International Motor Show or Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung (IAA) is the world's largest motor show and it opens today. IAA is held biennially in Frankfurt, Germany and is known in English as the Frankfurt Motor Show. It will attract at least 1 million visitors and will debut no fewer than 250 new passenger vehicle models.

I am no car junkie, so don't follow this closely but I did watch a segment on the morning news today previewing the models that visitors will be treated to when they arrive at the show this year. Clean, green, hybrid, electic, and other environmentally friendly prototypes will dominate the show apparently. I saw images of tiny space-age looking electric cars, and fancy luxury brands like Audi with the word HYBRID painted over the distinctive sleek bodywork.

Growing up not far from Detroit MI where the annual Auto Show dominates people's calendars, I remember it was all about being big and bad in those days! Large Hummer-type vehicles, trucks with industrial grade power being sold on the consumer market, and big heavy fuselages (I know that is an airplane term, but some of the cars were so large they looked larger than a small plane!).

Nice to see that the most anticipated new models this year are the enviro-friendly ones. They will have their place in the spotlight over the course of the next two weeks in Frankfurt - but the real road test will come when they hit the market. How will consumers vote?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Where I was on September 11th & how GRI helped

It was a terrible morning that most people won't ever forget. I recall arriving at work around 8.30am at the Tellus Institute in Boston (where the GRI spent its formative years - Ceres shared office space at the Tellus building back then!) and being aware immediately that something was wrong as I could feel tension, concern and confusion in the air. Some of us crowded around a TV screen in the meeting room and watched with horror as the events of that morning unfolded.

Most of us went home early in shock. Some of the planes took off from the Boston airport which set the city into a state of panic, and many of us knew people that would have reported for work around that time at the Twin Towers in nearby New York and were concerned for their safety.

The next morning Allen White (co-founder and acting Chief Executive of the GRI at that time) called myself and my colleague Mark Brownlie (GRI's former Communications Director) into his office. We were supposed to fly out on September 15th for a meeting of the so-called Measurement Working Group (MWG) - a group of nearly 100 people from all over the world and all backgrounds (corporate, investment, NGO, labor, accountants, you name it) in London where we would facilitate their talks on the development of the 2002 version of the GRI Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. Allen told us that the meeting was not canceled, that he had decided he would go, but that we could back out if we were not feeling secure. We both decided to join Allen and fly out on the 15th - just a few nervous days after 9-11-2001.

We eventually found ourselves in London along with nearly 100 MWG members from over 40 countries who had made the same decision as we did. Many, including Allen and I, had to incur major difficulties and travel itinerary changes to get there due to airport shut downs and new security measures. We were surprised that we had nearly 100% attendance, very few people chose not to come and very few refused to let long queues and fear stop them from traveling to this unique gathering.

I will never forget the way Allen White opened up that meeting. He reflected on the difficulties and risks that all had taken in order to be there and play their part in the development of the 2002 Guidelines. He said that our little microcosm of 100 participants committed to working together to achieve something - despite different languages, cultures, religions, citizenships, beliefs, and professional affiliations (not to mention opinions on how to measure environmental and social issues!) - was even more important post-9-11 than it was pre-9-11. Why? Because as long as we, as a global society, refuse to break down barriers and at the very least respect one another - if not try to understand one another - our future would never be a secure and sustainable one.

Maybe our group was just a drop in the bucket, but it was a start, and we were building something that would help standardize communications about important economic, environmental, and social issues globally which we felt could help break down barriers and misunderstandings even further.

GRI working group consensus-seeking processes are always incredible experiences for the participants as people learn (sometimes for the first time) to reach out across boundaries to try and understand one another - but the meeting in mid-September 2001 in London was an exceptional example of that. It was one of those experiences that changed my life both personally and professionally. I think of it every time I come across the stamp in my passport that marks my arrival at London Heathrow on 16 September 2001.

In memory of Carlton Bartels, climate change innovator.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Harvard Business Review asks how reporting helps manage climate risk

To round out a threesome of unprecedented media interest in GRI recently (see previous two posts this week) the Harvard Business Review was in touch to talk about what everyone is talking about - climate change.

The editor wondered how reporting could play a role in helping companies strategically manage risks and opportunities associated with climate change. Here were some perspectives I shared.

Lagging indicators: The starting point for navigating the risks of climate change is to first understand what impact the company’s operations, products and services are having on the environment. By knowing their own ‘carbon footprint’ with certainty, companies can start to take action to reduce their impacts. Benefits of measuring and reporting include realizing cost savings due to energy efficiency, to remain one step ahead of regulation, and to protect brand value by showing accountability and responsibility for environmental responsibilities.

Real time indicators: The climate change issue is so prominent that companies cannot afford to seem like they are not actively looking at their own impacts and helping to shape a more positive future. Benefits of reporting on these indicators include earning and maintaining a license to operate in the public domain, demonstrating a leadership position on one of the most pertinent issues of our time, and earning customers and clients by differentiating the company in the marketplace as responsible on this issue.

Leading indicators: Scientists tell us that climate change will alter our climatic patterns and our physical landscape. Reporting on forward looking indicators lets a company tell its story about how it is going to adapt and innovate to mitigate risk that climate change could cause – such as emerging risks to places where the company has operations, or risks to resources the company is dependant on (e.g., forests or agriculture), and risks associated with rising energy costs. Leading indicators also help the company show how it will capitalize on new market opportunities afforded by climate change – such as introducing new products and services that do not rely on fossil fuels, or engaging in carbon trading.

Search GRI indicators here.

Honesty note:
The Economist and Business Week contacted me this week, but I have to admit that the editor from Harvard Business Review contacted me about three months ago to talk about sustainability reporting and climate change. Since I am on a roll blogging big media interviews this week I couldn't resist adding it to the list. Look for the HBR interview in this October's issue.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Business Week asks why SMEs would report

Its been a big week for media interviews here at GRI. Today I heard from a journalist working on a story for Business Week on small and medium sized enterprises and sustainability. She was wondering why SMEs might start reporting. Here is the just of my response:

There seem to be two very different drivers for reporting based on where the company operates/originates (that we have detected!)

SMEs from USA, Canada, Australia, Western Europe: the driver for embracing sustainability and producing a report is usually a competitive differentiator when it comes to products and services – ie., these are companies that produce “green” or “sustainable” or “natural” products and services, and they use reporting to walk the talk on what they are doing. The value of reporting to these companies is brand enhancement and better communication channels with key stakeholders such as customers, communities, providers of capital, and employees. Of course this is a broad generalization - an exception I know of would be a group of Chilean fruit growers are trying to break into the UK and US organics marketplace, and they are finding that sustainability reporting is helping convince buyers that their product is genuinely “sustainable”.

Emerging markets SMEs (Africa, Asia, South America, Central and Eastern Europe) seem, for the most part, to be driven by efforts to enter – and be competitive – in the global marketplace. Buyers are forcing a plethora of ‘codes of conduct’ and other related initiatives (formal and informal) at them and they must show that they do adhere to sound environmental and labor/human rights practices in order to compete. As we have seen with the recent product safety and quality scandals in China – buyers are held responsible for what happens in their supply chains in the court of public opinion. This does seem ironic in a sense, as buyers have been shifting their contracts over the past decade or so to emerging markets where goods/services can be produced at lower cost – in part because the local governments do not impose stringent regulations when it comes to environment and social performance by the corporate sector. The regulation is still coming down the pipe – but in a different form and from a different authority – the international buyers (whether these be B2B or consumers directly). Companies with their eyes on the future are staying ahead of social audits and the like by getting a better idea of their social and environmental impacts and starting to manage potential risks.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Economist asks whats ahead in '08 for sustainability reporting

I was quite honored this week when a reporter from The Economist contacted me to ask what I thought might be coming down the line for sustainability reporting in 2008. They are gearing up for their "Year Ahead: 2008" annual issue to be released in the next few weeks and I think its a great sign that they were researching sustainability reporting. Researching it doesn't mean that the topic will actually make it into the issue - but I still took it as a great sign!

Here was how I responded when asked for my perspective on interesting developments for 2008:

• The rise of sustainability reporting through supply chains. GRI is working with four multinationals right now as they roll out reporting among suppliers in ‘high risk’ emerging markets – ie. places where human rights, environment, corruption, or product responsibility issue are prone to arising mainly due to lack of legislation or enforcement in certain countries – reporting is one way for global companies to have more control and confidence in the conduct of their suppliers – which they are being called to account by investors and consumers. We will see a marked increase in B2B reporting and smaller enterprise reporting due to information demands in the supply chain in 2008.

• A marked increase in reports out of Russia and India to combat negative assumptions in the international community about corruption, labor standards, governance practices, and environmental impacts. Early movers, such as Jubilant Organisys in India, have been rewarded for reporting on these issues by being able to attract international capital and by being competitive in international acquisitions. This is helping to set the stage for others to follow.

• The US responsible investment community has mounted a campaign to increase the quantity and quality of sustainability information available for data analysis and decision making. Their goal is to have all 100 of the S&P 100 reporting based on the GRI Guidelines by 2008, if they achieve this they will move on to the S&P 500 by 2011. As per early 2007 they had noted a 20% increase in S&P company GRI reporting – accounting for about 50% of the S&P 100. At this rate they will achieve their ambitious goal of all 100 S&P companies issuing GRI reports by end of next year.

• XBRL on the rise? The financial reporting community has been toying with XBRL as a way to exchange data for the past few years, interest at the SEC is helping to fuel this – the GRI Guidelines are now available in this format. Will this have an impact on the volume, accessibility, comparability, and demand for information in the marketplace in 2008?

• Climate change and human rights emerging as main stream agenda issues that companies are expected to be doing something positive about. Accountability, transparency and reporting on these issues will become expected and will drive increased numbers of reports issued in 2008.