Sustainability Reporting - Challenges and Benefits
6 February 2013 at 12:09 pm
Producing a sustainability report is becoming an accepted part of corporate accountability. Pro Bono Australia journalist Damien Currie spoke to Telstra to find out what challenges and benefits sustainability reporting can bring to a large Australian organisation.
Nancie-Lee Robinson, is Telstra’s General Manager – Governance, Integration & Reporting and Chief Sustainability Office and she has been working on the telco’s sustainability reports for the last five years. She says her focus is on the value of ‘reporting’ rather than the report itself as an end product.
Questions such as who uses the information and how do they use it are are integral. What do people want to know about? How can reporting support an organisational culture of transparency and accountability, and enhance engagement with our stakeholders?
”The report itself is just the tip of the iceberg,” she says.
According to Robinson the key challenges of sustainability reporting is deciding who is the audience.
“Reports are supposed to describe a company’s approach and performance on those issues of social, environmental and governance significance to your stakeholders. For a large company like Telstra, with a presence across the country, around 35,000 employees and 1.4 million shareholders, and millions of customers, pretty much everyone in Australia is a stakeholder,” she says.
“While there is merit in frameworks like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and assurance standards, the end result of compliance with these can be very long and inaccessible reports. Lack of compliance with so called ‘best practice’ standards though can result in claims of ‘green washing’ or ‘spin’.
“It is a difficult line to walk. And compiling a report requires a huge organisational commitment and effort, so you want to make sure there is value in the process.”
The Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ACCSR) helps organisations with responsible business strategies and stakeholder relationships and provide training in sustainability reporting in Australia and New Zealand.
Their Managing Director, Dr Leeora Black says one of the major challenges of compiling a report is appealing to stakeholders with diverse interests and uses for the report
“Developing the understanding within an organisation that the report needs to be a balanced and comprehensive account of sustainability impacts and performance, not a promotional document for the company’s good deeds,” she says.
“Obtaining reliable performance data from different parts of the organisation – for early reports the data collection systems are often immature and fragmented
“Really using the reporting process to interrogate performance and drive improvements not just a historical record.”
But sustainability reports aren’t all about challenges and obstacles. They do come with a range of benefits.
“Reporting helps us to keep track of our sustainability performance and helps to keep us accountable,” Telstra’s Nancie-Lee Robinson says.
“The processes behind it reveal new and emerging social and environmental issues, how other companies are addressing key sustainability challenges and what our stakeholders are interested in. It can really highlight any gaps in our approach. We find that the demand for sustainability information is increasing.
“We use the information we gather in stakeholder communications such as newsletters, meetings and presentations, in customer bids, in responses to media enquiries, and to inform our employees.”
According to Leeora Black, there are two main benefits for a company producing a sustainability report.
“There’s an opportunity to drive performance improvements and strengthen the contribution of sustainability to core business and improve social ,environmental and economic impacts of the organisation,” she says.
“There is also a reputational benefit from reporting, especially the first reports, but this depends on the balance and honesty of the reporting.”
The Future of Sustainability Reporting
When asked about the future of sustainability reporting, Robinson flags the use of technology as playing a key part.
“With the movement to integrated reporting, creative use of online reporting and communication, Smartphones and tablet technologies, and more sophisticated company sustainability strategies, I think the big standalone, compliance driven sustainability report will be a thing of the past,” she says.
“For me the challenge is to think about how we can use the reporting information we gather more flexibly, in order to meet the specific interests of our different stakeholder groups.”
Dr Black lists a number of trends destined for the future of CSR reporting:
1. Increasingly creative and diverse methods of communication, using different channels and media to appeal to different stakeholders needs
2. Extending reporting through the value chain – reporters increasingly needing to understand the sustainability impacts of their value chain from cradle to grave, requiring more integration of data and data sharing with key suppliers and customers
3. The G4 guidelines and development of integrated reporting will drive further changes towards reporting on how the business model creates sustainable value, which takes things further than reporting on impacts.
4. Improved measurement of impacts will be required as part of these trends
5. Sustainability reporting will become increasingly mainstream
6. The question of mandatory reporting as previously been canvassed by government (2006) and will be likely to come up again in future given global progress in the matter.