As 2015 kicks off a New Year and new planning cycle for the gathering of data to support corporate reporting on ethical and sustainable business practices it is worth taking a few moments to reflect on key issues from 2014 and the challenges ahead.
I am very humbled to currently be leading a small team of researchers based out of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs which is looking closely at the effectiveness of sustainability reporting practices. In response to a call for proposals from the Network for Business Sustainability at the Ivey Business School in London, Ontario our team has begun looking at a number of challenges impacting CSR and sustainability reporting.
NBS’s own work has resulted in some concerning findings regarding the efficacy of established practices to date positing the failure of most reports to either reach relevant audiences or to meet their informational needs. Having spent the past 15 years managing commercial supply chains for global multinationals around the world with a particular focus for the past half dozen years on ethical trade and sustainable business practices I would have to agree.
Firstly, far too many of the roles at for-profit companies tied to labour, environmental and community impacts are communications and PR driven. Far too little practical work is being done, especially within the consumer goods sector where I come from. And what communications efforts do appear generally fall short of promoting the development of shared industry-level knowledge or effectively influencing stakeholder awareness of practices and performance.
Canadian activist and author Naomi Klein’s 2014 book ‘This Changes Everything’ put neoliberalist capitalism on notice in one of the most definitive communications efforts of the past decade, poignantly achieving high marks in both the afore mentioned measures of effective reporting. For a country such as mine whose wealth rests greatly on the exploitation of natural resources from oil sands to fisheries and mining, Klein’s work has been a sobering slap in the face.
2014 was also the year, or so media outlets have been telling us, that the global apparel and textile industries where I first cut my supply chain teeth finally woke up to the significant environmental and social degradation they have driven for the past 300 odd years. Brands seem to have been clamoring to get their messages out as of late regarding all their hard work in Bangladeshi factories, in India’s cotton fields and regarding new efforts to help lift Africa out of the dire economic and social tailspin largely resultant from colonialism and dependency aid models.
Personally, I remain unconvinced though without a doubt the handful of outliers like Patagonia and a short-list of the newly converted like Gap and H&M have made real strides at upending old business models. But with well over 80% of brands still unable to clearly identify their supply chain material sources, let alone the impacts these effect, and more that 90% of them unwilling to provide full supply chain transparency to markets, media and impacted communities, effective sustainability reporting has a long ways to go.
Whether 2015 becomes the year that communications and PR professionals become emboldened to collaborate more honestly and effectively with sustainability professionals, organized labour, indigenous communities and shareholder activists remains to be seen. It certainly gives hope to industry insiders like me to see leading universities and business schools taking up the challenges of driving a new agenda for effective reporting and shared knowledge development.