The 5 Sustainability Reporting Lessons we Learned at the latest SPF EMEA Conference

September 9, 2015 By

It was a hectic but exciting two days for everyone involved in last June’s EMEA Sustainable Performance Forum (SPF). This year’s conference consisted of three simultaneous tracks and over 20 dynamic peer exchange workshops, training sessions and keynote presentations. Together with a number of Paris-based Enablonians, I attended the sustainability track on behalf of the sustainability enthusiasts that couldn’t make it to our city this year. If there’s one thing I can tell you, it’s that Nicomak’s morning workshop did not disappoint.

Nicomak, co-founded by Myriam Boniface, is a Paris-based consultancy working in the areas of ethics and CSR. In little over an hour, Myriam managed to get a diverse group of CSR and Sustainability managers on their feet, speaking openly about the challenges they face in their daily work. Here are 5 great discussions that took place during the session and that might relate to challenges you face on a daily basis within your own corporation:

1. Is your CSR report a plant or an animal?

It’s safe to say there were some puzzled expressions in the room when the session opened with a question as unconventional as this: ‘’if your CSR report was a plant or an animal, what would it be?”. While some participants likened their CSR reports to elusive and sly animals such as cats and snakes (“it’s hard to get figures from people when I call them”), others were more optimistic, with an attendee from a digital company comparing her CSR reports to a “reliable and transparent” Labrador.

2. The challenge of external stakeholder engagement

As the session’s facilitator, Myriam quickly directed the conversation towards one of the more challenging aspects facing CSR managers today: communication with stakeholders. Indeed, while few companies “go past the regulatory and compliant aspects of CSR reporting”, the reporting journey doesn’t (and shouldn’t) end at compliance. Myriam pointed out how she often hears companies stating “we do a lot of stakeholder engagement”, when in fact, they are focusing on sending out questionnaires. Needless to say, while this is a very valid method of data collection, questionnaires also run the risk of lying forgotten in the depths client or supplier’s mailbox and are more similar to an audit than they are to ‘true’ stakeholder engagement.

To be effective, stakeholder engagement needs to involve exactly that, ‘engagement’, as well as constructive dialogue. As Miryam explained, there are few companies that are truly capable of building and maintaining effective internal and external stakeholder engagement, yet this is where the future of CSR lies. In the wider scope of the reporting process, a questionnaire can vastly help in the collection of data, but the data itself is not the goal.

3. Lego, coffee and innovative forms of stakeholder engagement

What do Lego and coffee have in common? Starbucks and Lego are both companies with great examples of initiatives around stakeholder engagement. The concept behind ‘My Starbucks idea’ is simple. Anyone (a client, partner, supplier, employee) can post an idea or suggestion to a specifically dedicated site and watch as the idea is reviewed and potentially launched. Interestingly, over 50% of suggestions, ideas and contributions so far have come from the company’s ‘baristas’. Lego on the other hand, decided to unearth the next big thing in the Lego world by brainstorming with a group of of 20 superfans.

4. Different approaches to the reporting journey

In further exploring the challenges of engagement beyond data collection, the workshop drew some candid points of view from participants.

One participant, for instance, explained that while CSR is in their genes as a company, their position was to “avoid visibility”. Embracing visibility also meant “embracing risk” and going beyond the regulatory requirements was not something they were aiming for at that point in time. Another participant noted that while sustainability was high up on the priority list of her company’s CEO, their goal was to advance in their sustainability journey by focusing on how to benchmark, with the particular challenge of being “the only company working in their sector of activity”. For this participant, CSR reporting should imply less of a focus on details and KPIs (“our stakeholders want to see our long-term strategy, not how much electricity we are consuming”).

5. Tackling the challenges of internal engagement and report visibility

Some of the most interesting observations raised during the workshop, however, came from a young Sustainability and CSR officer from a group in the cosmetics industry. Her challenges around sustainability reporting were mainly focused on the internal visibility of her efforts. In particular, she pointed out the lack of interest from the Board in her reports: “We do a lot of interesting things, but the report is a blocking point”. Convincing the board that there are more benefits than risks in publishing a report is key. Myriam highlighted benchmarking, not only against peers and competitors, but also against suppliers and clients, as a strong method of encouraging company boards to view sustainability reporting as an asset.

For a CSR and Sustainability manager at a digital company, on the other hand, concerns were focused on “convincing people on the ground” about the importance of the reporting process. “We collect a lot of data but data owners often don’t see the bigger picture of reporting and understand why we collect this data”, she disclosed. She also emphasized the need for reinforced support from middle management and the importance of getting key employees in country operations to understand that, they too, have much to gain from the collection of high quality data. One of the main issues is that employees often do not receive the ‘end result’ of the initial data collection.

Indeed, collecting good quality data is just the first step in the reporting process, but it’s one of key importance. The same CSR manager offered up a very clear example of the strategic importance of strong, timely and accurate data collection: gathering encompassing data on gender diversity (at HQ and in the field) was a crucial matter in their case, because observations had shown that high rates of female employee turnover effectively translated into financial losses, negatively impacting the bottom line.

In short, one thing is for certain: there are as many reporting challenges as there are CSR and sustainability professionals, and corporations at different stages of their reporting journey.

These topics (among many others!) will also be discussed at our upcoming SPF Conference, taking place in Chicago on 21-23 September ’15. Join us and keep learning about how to tackle your reporting challenges!

To borrow a page from Myriam’s book: If your CSR/Sustainability report was an animal, what would it be and why?

Categories: Enablon, Sustainability

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