Menu
Home
Log in / Register
Medien und Kommunikationswissenschaft
 
Home arrow Communication arrow Strategic Communication for Sustainable Organizations
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

3.3.2.2 Reporting About Sustainability

In an effort to gain legitimacy and to signal their organization's commitment to the triple bottom line, many organizations publish sustainability reports (Ferns et al. 2008; GRI 2013). These reports present a company's values and governance model and show how company strategy reflects its commitment to sustainability. The process of writing these reports can help companies set and measure goals, understand some of their social and environmental impacts, and communicate about their economic, environmental, social, and governance performance. Senior decision makers can use a report's information to shape their organization's strategy and policies and improve its performance. From a critical theory perspective, the argument is these reports seek to produce “statements of facts,” tell a more or less passive audience that everything is fine, and discourage further questioning of the organization rather than functioning as part of a dialogic, problem-solving, educative process (Stiller and Daub 2007). Bowers (2010) argues they represent a genre organizations use to define the exigence (i.e., situation requiring urgent action) by making the business case for sustainability. But sustainability reports only approximate reality. Even the best only show how that organization would like to understand sustainability and have others see their sustainability efforts. To be of benefit, these reports must be fully auditable and address inherent conflicts and trade-offs between an organization's profit focus and its social and environmental responsibilities (Mitchell et al. 2012). Ideally, after reading a sustainability report, employees will engage in dialogue around triple-bottom-line issues, experience double-loop learning, and enact behavioral changes (see Sect. 7.1.2).

A Change over Time

Scholars have traced the evolution of sustainability reports (e.g., Bowers 2010; Livesey 2002; Maharaj and Herremans 2008). Some of the earliest corporate environmental reports were in response to public pressure following an environmental disaster. Increasingly, companies operating in sectors likely to experience environmental disasters (e.g., extraction-based companies, chemical manufacturers) began to report their environmental data. These early reports were technical accounts of environmental impacts and remedial efforts which included metrics collected for other business purposes, were required by regulatory agencies, or met voluntary guidelines created by industry associations and international bodies. Early reports stressed compliance. They often lacked significant quantitative data, explanations for trends, negative news, or proposed future actions to improve negative results. In 1991, Royal Dutch Shell Canada published one of the first reports labeled as sustainable development. That subsidiary's commitment to more transparent and broad sustainability reporting and communication influenced the parent company's reporting a few years later when its reputation was at its lowest level (Livesey 2002). Under pressure, Royal Dutch Shell published their first ethics report in 1998. By 1999, their reputation had improved, partly because of their stakeholder engagement efforts, especially their social and environmental reporting. The reports increased in sophistication and included more rigorous reporting of how environmental policies were being implemented and about the company's triple-bottom-line impact. Later reports included feedback mechanisms for their stakeholders, identified measurable annual targets and objectives, and incorporated the employee perspective on pro-environmental efforts.

Over time, the message frames appearing in the reports shifted. Exxon, Chevron, and BP changed the way they framed climate change in their annual letters to stockholders and stakeholders between 2003 and 2009 (Domenec 2012). Environmental values went from being portrayed as a potential threat to something that yields value, and oil spills were acknowledged. The emphasis was on how the companies behaved responsibly and proactively regarding environmental issues. Bowers (2010) found something similar in his rhetorical study of the sustainability reports of ten global companies at two points in time. The issues which led to the creation of the first sustainability reports remain unchanged (e.g., greenhouse gases, human rights, toxic emissions). What changed was why corporations responded and the way they defined the rhetorical situation from compliance to value generation. Bowers found a growing emphasis on economic value in the opening sections of the report and the CEO letters emerged over time. Increasingly reports provided information about measurable economic outcomes associated with various sustainability activities.

Developing a Reporting Framework

Due to the lack of standardization between reports, in 1997, the GRI was developed to provide a comprehensive sustainability reporting framework for measuring and reporting sustainability-related impacts and performance. The GRI's mission is to make sustainability reporting standard practice for all organizations. Their services include coaching and training, software certification, and reporting guidance for smalland medium-sized enterprises. The first framework was available in 2000, and in 2002, GRI was formally inaugurated as a United Nations Environmental Programme collaborating organization. Their framework is used worldwide. In their 2011/2012 annual report, GRI summarized a study showing that 95 % of the world's 250 biggest companies disclosed sustainability performance information in 2011, and 80 % of those used the GRI guidelines. In 2009, 1,000 organizations had used the framework, a 47 % increase from 2007, and the framework's use has grown steadily since. Most sustainability reports are prepared by business organizations (Dart and Hill 2010; Guthrie and Farneti 2008). That is slowly starting to change. The GRI has a sector supplement for public agencies. In 2012–2013, Fall River, MA, was the first US city to produce a GRI report; the Washington State Department of Ecology was the first state environmental agency to release a GRI report; and the San Diego International Airport was the first US airport to release a GRI report.

Tyson Foods and the GRI Tyson Foods turned to the GRI when planning their first sustainability report. Kevin Igli, Senior Vice President and Chief Environmental Health and Safety Officer at Tyson Foods, Inc., explained:

We wanted to make sure that we were holding ourselves accountable to some type of a standard with respect to reporting.. .. We decided that if we are going to compare ourselves, we need to compare ourselves to the gold standard. The reason is if you don't do that then someday you may decide to and then you have to completely switch formats.. . I think they do a great job.. .. We use a lot of ISOs' work around 1401 environmental issues to help guide the way we build programs. They have done wonderful work and I am not taking anything away from them.. .. GRI is so far out in front of everybody that they are the way to go. GRI is global and they do bring very broad perspectives. Most large, multinational companies that use sustainability reporting engage with GRI, and it just made sense for us.

Tyson Foods used the GRI reporting framework as a model for preparing their first two sustainability reports:

We were fortunate that the very first outing [of preparing a report], while there were a lot of categories where we did not meet their expectation, there were so many where we did.. .. The title of our first report was Living Our Core Values. We chose that because we have core values as a corporation. So we decided that the best way to tell our story is to see do we walk our talk. If we lay out our core values against the principles of sustainability, how are we doing? So that was what our first report actually discovered and discussed. It discovered how we were doing. It was very interesting.

The company decided to have their third GRI report graded and they received a

B. Kevin said, “We are a very competitive company, so the B resonated okay with senior management. It said, you are better than average. But what does it take to get an A [management asked]?” They earned an A for their fourth report in 2013. “To get an A plus you have to bring in an independent third party and it gets a lot more complicated. We have not decided if we will go after that. But if we could get another A, we would be happy.”

Multiple entities besides the GRI exist to guide organizations interested in reporting on their sustainability efforts. Some are sector or industry specific. Action Plan: Identify which guidelines are most relevant to the organization and sector you are interested in. However, as long as sustainability reports lack standardization (Ferns et al. 2008), this makes it hard to benchmark performance or achieve a best practices status and it creates a vacuum filled by the report readers' personal expectations and interpretations. Many sustainability metrics are reported on a voluntary basis and measures are not standardized unlike financial reports' generally accepted accounting practices. Best Practice: Use the GRI to compare across organizations and sectors.

Deciding on Report Content

The GRI sustainability reporting framework has influenced report content. For example, a focus on materiality, a major consideration when writing a GRI report, gives business leaders and managers an opportunity to articulate how sustainable development issues can be integrated into specific business practices. Economic issues are one of the ways businesses decide if something is material. Some reports include statements describing how lessening environmental impacts and attending to social problems can reduce operating costs, generate revenue, open new markets, and provide a competitive advantage (Bowers 2010). Other report content seeks to identify and report on an organization's triple-bottom-line goals, targets, and initiatives, provide specific and measurable context and reference points (e.g., comparable data from previous years or cross-industry comparisons), show performance against benchmarks, share an organization's values, identify the processes organization's use to minimize any harm its activities produce, set specific goals for the future, and address the needs of various stakeholder groups (Maharaj and Herremans 2008). Others provide emission data, mechanisms used to measure the success of environmental practice implementation, internal communications systems, environmental policies and practices outside the USA, and environmental sustainability-related requirements for suppliers (Axelrod 2000). Realizing sustainability reports can influence corporate reputation, many include statements from a chief executive officer, chief financial officer, and/or chief sustainability officer. Ferns et al. (2008) concluded that a CEO's status and credibility is critical to building public trust. Some reports include information on regulatory problems, remediation liabilities, environmental challenges, and failures encountered when enacting sustainability-related initiatives (Axelrod 2000; Maharaj and Herremans 2008). Ihlen (2009) notes that most do not address the fundamental issue—how their industry and the lifestyles they support produce more environmental harms than benefits. Numerous scholars have researched the content of the corporate sustainability reports and websites of companies across the globe (e.g., Biloslavo and Trnavcevic 2009; Chaudhri and Wang 2007; Gill et al. 2008; Herzig and Godemann 2010; Stiller and Daub 2007), employing content analysis or rhetorical analysis (e.g., Bowers 2010; Ihlen 2009; Livesey 2002). Chapter 7 discusses how supply chain relationships are discussed within sustainability reports. Action Plan: Identify the issues covered in the sustainability report of an organization you admire or which is an industry leader.

Tyson Foods and Sustainability Report Content Deciding what to include in a report can be challenging. Kevin Igli, Senior Vice President and Chief Environmental Health and Safety Officer at Tyson Foods, Inc., told me:

Sustainability reports are tricky. There is a balance you have to find about transparency, confidentiality, and what you are really comfortable sharing about your company in a very open forum. As companies go through this process it takes an army of people to have a team to draw together all the different resources and pieces. We call them wheel owners. We draw a big pie chart and divide it up around the company in terms of the different aspects that go into our sustainability reports. One of the things that is unique to Tyson's sustainability approach, is that it is not a green report. We do talk about the planet. We do talk about environmental stewardship. We talk about a lot of other things. Sustainability at Tyson is very broad. We touch on animal welfare, we touch on human nutrition, we touch on hiring practices, and we touch on our team members' Bill of Rights. So we take sustainability as a very broad topic. We don't just look at it as greening the planet or being good environmental stewards. That is a very important thing, but that is only one part of what we view sustainability to be. We are pretty clear on that. When you go through our report we talk about the broad approach and why we do that.

Benefits of Sustainability Reporting

Sustainability reports provide organizations with an outlet for telling their story and give corporate leaders a public forum for stating their commitment to good corporate citizenship (Ferns et al. 2008). The organization has complete control over the content. While paid advertisements and press releases can be rebutted in the same medium (e.g., editorials, news stories, op-eds), sustainability reports are relatively protected from critical analysis. Voluntary social reporting also creates precedents and thresholds that push other firms to adopt more systematic practices and to share more information (Livesey 2002). Report similarity in the same industry and in a similar value chain (due to mimetic isomorphism) challenges the idea that the reports can provide a competitive advantage due to differentiation (Ferns et al. 2008), an idea which often emerges as a business case for sustainability argument. However, similar reports do reduce the likelihood an organization will be uniquely targeted by activists. Sustainability reports that match stakeholder needs, if read, can result in positive consumer opinions, enhanced stakeholder trust, higher employee satisfaction, increased community support, access to markets in new countries, and improved corporate brand management.

Sustainability reports which discuss climate change potentially can influence public attention to and understanding of the issue. Looking at how 30 of the world's largest corporations addressed climate change in their nonfinancial reports, Ihlen (2009) identified the rhetorical strategies used to persuade a range of stakeholders (e.g., competitors, suppliers, investors, governments) that the corporation was dealing with the issue appropriately. Four topics appeared central to the reports:

(1) acknowledgment that the environmental situation is grave, (2) statements indicating that the corporation is in line with the scientific consensus and the international political process on curbing emissions, (3) assurances that the corporation plans to take measures to reduce company emissions, and (4) contentions that the climate challenge poses an opportunity for business. However, nothing in the reports suggested that these corporations were engaged in the radical rethinking of systemic problems we need if humanity is to seriously address climate change.

Moving to Online Sustainability Reports

We frequently learn about an organization's commitment to sustainability through electronic sources such as Internet search engines and websites (Herzig and Godemann 2010). In 2012, 80 % of the US population had access to the Internet. Given the plethora of electronic sources, the number of watchdog organizations (e.g., SourceWatch), and the speed with which a stakeholder can investigate a firm, comprehensive and truthful online reporting is vital if an organization is to successfully manage its corporate reputation (Ferns et al. 2008). Walker and Wan (2012) evaluated the sustainability statements appearing on the websites of 103 chemical, energy, mining, and forestry companies listed on the Financial Post's top 500 Canadian companies for 2008. They selected Canadian companies because Canada, unlike the USA, signed the Kyoto Protocol and has publically committed to emission reductions. The topics discussed on these websites included energy conservation, management of greenhouse gases, stakeholder engagement, environmental audits, recycling, technology development, environmental management systems, waste management, employee training, environmentally friendly products, innovation, carbon capture and recovery, and life-cycle analysis. As you would expect, industry sector influenced the topics appearing on the websites.

Tyson Foods' Printed and Online Reports Many organizations are augmenting their written reports with electronic website-based versions or moving their reporting completely online. Tyson Foods, Inc., published its first sustainability report in 2005. Their first two reports were high-gloss printed documents. They switched the next two reports to the Internet. All four reports are archived on their public website and are available in English and Spanish. Kevin Igli, Senior Vice President and Chief Environmental Health and Safety Officer at Tyson Foods, Inc., described the evolution of sustainability reporting at Tyson Foods, Inc., saying:

Our most recent report is online and is a completely different format. It is tabbed and searchable so you can go in and pick and choose what you want to read, when you want to read it. That has made a difference in terms of people going and looking at what they want to look at. Because not everyone wants to read everything that is in there. So what will happen is they will go in and say, 'well I want to read about animal welfare' and they will start reading it and say, 'did you see this stuff on products?' All of a sudden they get interested and they are reading and reading. So it is a lot better format because you can come and go as you need. You can download a copy onto your IPad or whatever device you use, onto your phone. So electronic media and electronic format, we have learned a lot about what that means and how you make it easier for people to learn.. .. It is all part of learning how to communicate. Tyson has a Facebook, we have Twitter, so we are engaging in all kinds of different directions and it has really been helpful.. .. We want people to engage more and learn more.

Electronic reporting reduces information dissemination costs, potentially increases the reach of the message, and allows for more versatility in changing content. The ability to provide ongoing, additional, or updated information allows companies to respond to greater demands for information and convey a more complete vision of their sustainability performance. Audio, video, and interactive tools are available to both raise awareness and help convey complex ideas. Specific information can be directed toward targeted stakeholders (e.g., investors, donors, suppliers) (Herzig and Godemann 2010). Internet communication also can be structured to increase comprehension. The Internet's hypertextuality allows for the use of search functions, sitemaps and navigation alternatives (e.g., linked indexes), and glossaries, which can increase access to and the comprehensibility of the information. Customized reporting approaches allow for user-specific creation and interactive choice. A dialogue-based online relationship can include a range of mutual, asynchronous ways to solicit feedback (e.g., mail-to-functions, guest books, and online surveys) and influence long-term and continuous dialogue (e.g., discussion forums and bulletin boards). A mutual, synchronous dialogue, with a high degree of spontaneity, is also possible (e.g., chats, audioand videoconferencing). Online discussions can help organizations understand their stakeholders' attitudes and information requirements. Although, the Internet provides tools organizations can use to increase stakeholder dialogue, few appear to be using these options.

I have always admired Ray Anderson for the actions he took to put his carpet company, Interface, on the path toward sustainability and for his willingness to speak very publically about his decision and subsequent actions. Interface's Mission Zero goal is to eliminate all of its negative environmental impacts by 2020 through the redesign of processes and products, the pioneering of new technologies, and the reduction or elimination of waste and harmful emissions while increasing the use of renewable materials and energy sources. Sustainability is a main category appearing on their homepage. In 2013, clicking the Sustainability tab allowed viewers to read the Interface story, learn about their progress and challenges, and provide questions, suggestions, and advice. Several things about this website appeal to me. The use of the framing metaphor of a journey and the graphic of the mountain communicate effectively about the ongoing and difficult nature of the process. Understandable metrics are provided which show what they have accomplished in several important areas (i.e., energy, climate, waste, facilities, and transportation). Finally, their public outreach in the form of their speakers bureau shows their continuing willingness to help other businesses become more sustainable.

Not all websites are created equal. Poor websites reduce an organization's ability

to successfully communicate with interested stakeholders. Practitioners might find this an interesting checklist to use when planning their organization's website. Action Plan: Use the following questions to evaluate the website of your organization or an industry leader.

• How easy is it to access sustainability-related information on the main webpage?

How many clicks does it take to get to the sustainability page?

• What are the main topics on the sustainability page? Within each topic, how much information is provided?

• Is there a clearly stated sustainability vision? Is it attributed to the CEO? Are clear ways for achieving this vision listed?

• Are any statements provided by key stakeholders in addition to the CEO? Which ones? What are they saying?

• Are clear goals provided? Is a timeline for achieving the sustainability-related goals provided? Does the company indicate if and how they are meeting each goal? Do they provide evidence to support their claim the goals are being met?

• Is the information clearly targeted to specific stakeholders (e.g., investors, employees, customers, etc.)? Which stakeholders are being specifically addressed?

• Are issues related to the triple bottom line (people, planet, profits) addressed?

What are they reporting in each area?

• Do they have a sustainability report linked to the website? If so, for which years?

In which language(s)?

• What other links exist on the sustainability page?

• Is the website visually appealing, easy to navigate, and easy to read? Are there clearly defined or labeled areas. Are downloadable pdfs provided?

• Is the writing clear and succinct? Are quotes provided and from whom? Are stories provided on the webpage?

• What is being highlighted in the pictures? Are there graphs and/or charts? What are the main points being conveyed by these pictures/graphs/charts?

• Can you provide feedback to the company? Are there questionnaires, forums,

chat rooms, or any other forms of interactivity? Can visitors sign in or get on a mailing list for updated information?

• If you want to contact the company, is a general email address provided? A specific email address provided? Are any specific people identified as sustainability-related contacts?

 
Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >
 
Subjects
Accounting
Business & Finance
Communication
Computer Science
Economics
Education
Engineering
Environment
Geography
Health
History
Language & Literature
Law
Management
Marketing
Philosophy
Political science
Psychology
Religion
Sociology
Travel