Why create a CSR report?
Why should a company create a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), sometimes known as a Sustainability report, or even a “Triple Bottom Line” report? What are the drivers? Is CSR a fad, a real reporting opportunity, or a requirement? The answer to that question depends on who you are, your markets and clients, your competitors, and those you report to external to the company.
It is easy to suggest that it is a fad, and we've all seen fads come and go. But it is also easy to see that if it is a fad, it is a fad that is being driven as much by consumers as by companies themselves. Companies across industries are touting their corporate responsibility on their websites. Why? Why would they spend the money and time to create reports, unless they actually believe there is a return for such reporting?
The very fast response is that they believe there is going to be a return, a real ROI, either through reduced costs or increased revenue, or both.
So what are the key drivers? The can be summed up as including:
• Market expectations
And each of these drivers has at its core either increasing revenues, or reducing costs. After all, if a program does not accomplish one or the other, then why should a company incur the associated costs?
In CSR circles, these drives are called "stakeholders", and frequently direct outreach to stakeholders is an important element of creating a successful CSR report. Strangely, for most companies that "stakeholder engagement" has already take place, in one way or another, and the information needed to create the CSR report already exists.
So lets look quickly at each of these drivers.
Why should a company produce any report? Fundamentally reporting should serve the purpose of improving internal decision-making, influencing external parties, or responding to regulator mandates. As CSR reports are external facing in nature, the question then is "who do we want to influence". At the front of the pact should be the investors or potential investors. And this means that the CSR report should provide the information needed for that group - information to demonstrate to investors (and analysts whose results are of interest to investors) that the company understands and is proactive in meeting is "responsibility" imperatives.
Investors want both short- and long-term rewards, and management's program must balance the two. The CSR report should, coupled with or even integrated with the annual and financial report, provide the data that delivers comfort to investors that the company understands and is focused on achieving short-term rewards in a manner that ensures achievement of long-term rewards and goals. Almost sounds like the classic definition of Sustainability - enough for today without stealing from tomorrow (my paraphrase).
Markets, both B2B and B2C (and every other x2x) are becoming much more aware of the relationship between a supplier's corporate responsibility and the quality of product, acceptance of the product, and reduction of long term costs.
Equally, companies have come to understand that, as Warren Buffet said best "it takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin one". Corporate responsibility is not about always doing good, but about being able to prove to yourself and communicate to your customers that always try, honestly, to do good (within a business context of needing to make a profit).
Many companies are now including a requriement for suppliers to specifically address their CSR credential in proposals. One bank in Vancouver includes responses in it ranking of potential service providers. Other companies around the world are now looking for this information in bids.
You should be asking for a copy of any potential suppliers CSR reports before entering into any major contract. Companies that provide such reports are significantly more likely to understand the issues and to work to ensure that they are “responsible” businesses. Companies that cannot demonstrate their CSR credentials may cost you, and cost you big. Too often a failure to report is not because the company is not aware of the issues, but because addressing potential issues (child labor, carbon-intensive production or energy, pollution) can add costs that will eat into the suppliers’ profits. Competing against “responsible” businesses without carrying associated costs can be profitable business. But today, any tourist or activist with a cellphone could destroy your reputation, linking you to irresponsible companies in your supply chain.
Companies should take a very good look at their competitors’ websites and the messages that they are sending.
Working with clients, I make a habit of looking at their competitors’ websites. It comes as a little surprise that many tout their sustainability or responsibility credentials. Sometimes in vapid and empty phrases, or with pictures of windmills, daisies, and little girls smiling in the sunshine (these I almost immediately discount). Others back up their statements with reports, online or in PDF format, sometimes with a GRI Content Index to help find various bits of information.
Then there are the majority - the companies that do not have CSR or Sustainability reports of position statements. I also like to point these out to my clients, asking if demonstrating the company’s credentials might actually provide a competitive advantage. Equally, if the company is already competing of a "level playing field", how level will the field be when their competitors do start showing their credentials?
Ahhh, regulators, the gorilla in the room. Why are they a driver for creating a CSR or Sustainability report? The first reason is to show them that you are already a "responsible" business and therefore, as they say on the police shows - "Move along, nothing to see here". The second reason is to prove that there is no need for all that nasty regulation that they are considering, because you are already "responsible", as demonstrated in you report.
Of course, the first reason the more effective, because for the second to matter, your peers will need to be demonstrating that they are responsible businesses also.
So, the CSR or Sustainability report should be taking informaiton that your company already produces, and complies it into a quality report that all can see, not just the regulators who are already receiving those detailed reports.
A great example is the commercial property and construction industries. Many companies in these industries produce very nice CSR reports. A careful read of the reports, especially their health and safety sections (frequently described as "Caring for our People and our Communities" or words to that effect) can be boring, and sound like boilerplate. At there core is a simple message - "We comply with all health and safety laws". But that is not nearly as interesting as reporting a reduced accident rate, increased training, onsite safety briefings for all visitors (“because we care”), etc.
Employees like to have pride in their company. It is part of them. And a company’s image reflects on the employees. Ask any employee of a "Top 100 Places to Work" (in the US) or virtually any employee of a company like the Co-Op in the UK, and you will see their pride.
And pride in your employer translates directly into reduced unplanned turnover, reduced hiring costs and payroll, and increased productivity. We know that people work for money - but we also know that people chose where they work for many reasons beyond money.
Some companies are intentionally structuring the "responsibility" message with a view to attracting and retaining employees (even in this economy). Some look at their employees as long term assets that require investment. Others understand that the recovery, as it unfolds, will change the employment picture, and companies with a poor reputation will get their pick of the second-level candidates.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, all companies have a "license to operate" that is in no small part predicated on how the local and wider community views that company. Good employers, innovative products and services, and a respect for the environment and society all factor into that "license to operate". Abuse that license and society will turn against the company.
Therefore reports are being written specifically to highlight the value and respect that companies have for their communities. For the multinationals, they report to demonstrate their respect for and support for the varied cultures and communities in which the work and deliver products and services.
The support of companies for their communities is not something that happens because it is in a glossy CSR report. The CSR report highlights the support that the company provides to its communities.
Where does the content come from?
So, I've highlighted the drivers for CSR reporting. But where does all the information contained in such a report come from? The range of information, the number of people that maintain and hold that information within a company can be quite difficult to map. And mapping the sources of that information is important.
The good news is that there are ways to improve access to and collating all that information, filtering out the important from the merely interesting.
This is a subject for a different article, but clearly tools exist or are coming onto the market that will make the collection, collation and selection of already existing information and content much easier. This will facilitate the rapid creation and updating of CSR / Sustainability reports, regardless of the reporting standard used.
What reporting standards should be followed?
Today there are a few reporting standards, and the standard selected should be based on the primary audiences. If you are looking to create a pool of data for analysts, I would recommend you take a good hard look at the KPIs for ESP produced by the DVFA (German Investment Analysts Association) and endorsed by EFFAS. If your primary audience is marketing, consumers, and employees, then the GRI's G3 standard provides a range of reporting levels (they call them "Application Level") that allows you to produce a tailored report, and to grow the range of reported information over time.
The UN Global Compact probably has the "easiest" and "fastest" standard to comply with, and is a good "starter" report. But if a company is going to be serious about meeting the information needs of the widest range of audiences, the UNCG will not be adequate.
The work of the newly formed (August 2010) IIRC (International Integrated Reporting Committee) will be worth following, as the primary objective there is to create reporting standards that integrate sustainability reporting into tranal business reporting (annual reports, etc) and providing a sound accounting base for the reported information.