Monday, October 08, 2007

Back to basics (4): Who reads sustainability reports?

Last week GRI launched the GRI Readers’ Choice Awards, giving readers a platform and a voice what they value most in sustainability reports and which reports they liked most because they addressed the material issues in a convincing way. We thought it was necessary to address the question “who is reading all these reports and is it really worth the effort?” This is of course exciting, and the first days after the website was launched the interest was already huge. But still, two things make me really wonder:

Firstly, I am always amazed how much capacity and money is available in nearly all companies that I have seen for their normal annual reporting process and print design, while sustainability reports still have to be produced with budgets that are “too much to die, but not enough to live”.

Of course, there are difficult, sometimes overwhelming legal requirements to fulfil when pulling together annual reports. And yes, strict assurance practices are necessary as well; all that has to be well prepared and does cost money. However, it is mainly a look into the rear mirror, addressed to one stakeholder group only and not really covering the long-term future needs (in that sense: sustainability) of the company. One could argue that all these efforts are necessary for the readers, but – let’s be honest – how many readers do annual reports really have apart from maybe 200 industry sector specialists, asset managers, ranking institutions, an probably some competitors and employees? How many printed short versions of annual reports have you personally thrown away into the bin without having taken one single look at them?

In contrast to this I have met so many companies where employees have learnt so much about their company (especially when they were large and/or multinationals) and have used sustainability reports as a reference document when visiting customers, shared them with friends and still have them at home, keeping every single version. I have seen students reading reports when figuring out which company could be a good employer, MBA students using the GRI matchmaker program to study sustainability reports in their MBA courses and discuss the question what a specific company should be responsible for and how they would react in case of a certain dilemma, digging deep into the problems and build understanding of the rationale behind a specific decision that had to be made. We see more and more of the usual suspects for annual reports consumption reading sustainability reports because they want to learn how to invest more sustainable and long-term, making investment decision with a real sense - while still making money. We see more and more suppliers reading sustainability reports because they expect to be asked next about their specific responsibility in the supply chain by their customers, and we see more and more communities and ministries really thinking about making sustainability information a requirement for their own procurement activities. So, is there anybody out there who likes to follow my bet that already more people really read sustainability reports than annual reports?

Clearly, I am not arguing that less money should be spent on annual reports if it’s absolutely necessary. But it’s definitely time to make sure that sustainability reporting processes get the budgets they deserve! If the budget for the preparation of a good sustainability reports remains low over time a clear story is told: it is not the lack of money, but the wrong prioritization of sustainability as a really important issue.

Secondly, isn’t the basic question asked not also a warning signal that stakeholder engagement is still not fully understood? While it is pretty clear that during the development of the sustainability report stakeholders need to be involved to define material issues, the question how to continue to involve stakeholders after the publication of the report still seems to be a weak spot. Or has the communication strategy suddenly ended with the launch of the report (maybe with an A5 card in the back as feedback form?) instead of making the launch of the report the starting point for even more stakeholder engagement (=input for the next report)? In summary the fact that we still ask ourselves the basic question about the readers of sustainability reports makes it clear that some inefficiency in the overall reporting and feedback process still exists. Answers are welcome; therefore please join the GRI Readers’ Choice Awards.

4 comments:

avaiki nius agency said...

One last comment !

It is fantastic to see the Global Reporting Initiative actually institute information leadership by not only taking up blogs, but using a freely accessible platform that the public can take your example from.

Enabling comments is another big tick in favour of GRI - ensuring accountability for your transparency.

Minor points:

1. Browsability
2. Missing links
3. Just companies?
4. Freemarket reporting

1. It would be nice to have Alyson's name on the blog homepage: http://www.globalreporting.org/NewsEventsPress/Blog/ and a clearer, higher link to the blog itself, rather than buried in the second paragraph.

2. At the moment, there is no link back to the blog home page (aside from the back arrow, natch), an ommission which interrupts the point and click flow on most sites. I would suggest replacing the www.globalreporting.org link with http://globalreporting.blogspot.com - if people want the main site they can access it from your blog homepage!

3. As NGO's increase their monitoring of private companies, will increasing numbers of web users seek indication of credibility among NGO's as well?

If the answer is yes, then global reporting may need to look at an initiative or partnerships that cast an eye over NGO's as well, helping web surfers to avoid wiping out on the monster waves of information barelling down our information pipes.

Once NGO's become as well known as the media as credible sources of information about the corporate world, expect a bonanza of bogus NGO's, enough to make today's phony climate sceptics look like Bedtime for Bonzo.

4. Independent, freelance journalists often find themselves outside mainstream media because issues they cover have yet to achieve widespread recognition.

Models like www.mahalo.com promise potential revenue for independent journalists and other such researchers - but will it become a reality?

By partnering with independent journalists via blogs like this one, institutes like GRI and WRI can apply direct exposure to expert local knowledge - as simply as clicking a google link like "Advertise on this site."

As a former (failed) publisher in newsprint, I appreciate all too well problems from concentrating on getting the truth out, at the same time avoiding equal honesty when it came to my business's bottom-line profitability.

In fact there might be some room for something like GRI to put together an advertising blogroll of sites examining sustainable development, a blogroll NGO's like GRI - WRI could serve as a facilitator for donor funding.

Perhaps! Congratulations on a fine foray and kia toa - stay strong.

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