Like petulant teenagers, reports need to stop being self-indulgent and grow up.
By Lynnette McIntire
Adolescents wave their immaturity like flags. They focus on themselves, underestimate the risks and impact of their actions, are oblivious of the consequences, and shut out voices that challenge them.
Unfortunately, a perusal of sustainability reports also "Smells like Teen Spirit" with self-indulgence writ large across the glossy and colorful pages.
Author Dr. Tim Elmore catalogued attributes of maturity in a 2012 Psychology Today article as qualities for parents to instill in their children. They also can be used to judge the maturity of sustainability reports:
1. A mature person is able to keep long-term commitments.
Mature sustainability programs recognize the long-term implications of their company's actions and then invest for long-lived (a.k.a. "sustainable") results. Too often, reports showcase the past year's latest and greatest achievements but fail to connect the action to future plans and commitments. Companies that have multi-year ambitious goals, like Unilever, are signaling that they are committed to sustainable action.
2. A mature person is unshaken by flattery or criticism.
Most sustainability reports are devoid of any criticism or negative information, especially by those outside the company. None of the angst of decision-making and prioritization is visible. Worst yet, there's often no recognition that outside voices were even heard, much less solicited. Mature reporting means that criticism is as visible as flattery like those long lists of awards and positive rankings. The best reports admit mistakes and humbly and transparently cite their remedial actions. Kimberly-Clark, for example, acknowledged challenges with its zero waste goals, citing specific reasons and future plans. They also extensively recorded the environmental groups they are working with to address waste issues in their industry.
3. A mature person possesses a spirit of humility.
As Dr. Elmore says, "Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less." Increasingly, leading sustainability reports connect their impact and mission with others beyond their own organizations. These companies publicly recognize that their success is dependent on their customers, suppliers and communities, That is, mature reports treat their external partners as equals, giving credit where credit is due. Intel, for example, recognizes excellent suppliers based on cost, quality, availability, delivery, technology and environmental, social and governance.
4. A mature person’s decisions are based on character not feelings.
To be credible reporters, companies have to have a formal framework of ethics, and responsible behavior to support their sustainability claims. In their reports, they find ways to tell how they reward employees for upholding their principles, and they document how violators are punished. Siemens has acknowledged a legacy of corruption and its General Counsel is now leading public efforts to address bribery and corruptions through the United Nations Global Compact.
5. A mature person expresses gratitude consistently.
"Mature people see the big picture and realize how good they have it, compared to most of the world’s population," reports Dr. Elmore. Good sustainability reports acknowledge the responsibility of wealth. Mature companies are acutely aware of the challenges and pressures that their customers, employees and marketplaces face every day. And they proactively share their own resources. Baxter, Pfizer and other pharmaceuticals are actively involved in policy development and product research to address the challenge of accessible, affordable health care, especially for those in the lowest rungs of the global economy even as they meet the needs of the most affluent.
6. A mature person knows how to prioritize others before themselves.
Businesses inevitably have a crowd of stakeholders clamoring for their resources. Mature companies thoughtfully and rationally set priorities. Mature reports acknowledge the inherent conflicts of multiple stakeholders and then transparently disclosure their decision-making processes. This is one of the emerging principles of international sustainability reporting frameworks such as GRI (the Global Reporting Initiative) and the IIRC (International Integrated Reporting Council).
In 2007, Australian retailer Woolworth's laid out a prioritization plan through 2015 that explained its methodology, rationale and goals – reflecting the viewpoints of both internal and external stakeholders. The document recognized the farmers that were dependent on them, the consumers who trust them, and the 180,000 employees who depend on them for their livelihood. Those goals remain intact today and progress is reported annually with new goals encompassing community contributions, suppliers and waste management, and fair trade added as they progressed.
7. A mature person seeks wisdom before acting.
Dr. Elmore states that, "a mature person is teachable. They don’t presume they have all the answers. The wiser they get the more they realize they need more wisdom."
Too often, companies insulate their leaders. They are reluctant to reach out to parties different than themselves, especially those that have expressed criticism in the past. But outside counsel can bring new ideas, identify unexpected risks and creative approaches. Sustainability reports that show evidence of proactive interaction with critics show an open-minded approach to problem solving. Novo Nordisk, for instance, announced that it is joining hands with industry partners and animal welfare groups to develop alternatives to animal research and improve the conditions for research animals.
So, is your company sustainability report mature or an adolescent? The difference could determine whether your reporting is effective or ignored.