Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Behind the Report Behind the Brands

The new Oxfam Report Behind the Brands is a must-read. It's only just been released and respected commentators such as Marc Gunther and Jo Confino of the Guardian have already published their insights with spectacular headlines such as "big food is failing the poor" and "multinational companies are failing on CSR goals".  Well, we sort of knew that before the Oxfam report, but Behind the Brands pulls everything together quite spectacularly, highlighting the issues and challenges that large food companies face and/or create, brand by brand, punch by punch. The report is Oxfam's move to get the world's ten largest Food and Beverage companies to sit up and shape up, and work harder to create a more equitable food system and a more sustainable future.

The Oxfam narrative reads a little like a sustainable business horror story. There's not much that's new, but  it's combined in a very effective round-up of the issues that have been on the sustainability agenda in the F&B sector for some time now.   "For more than 100 years, the world's most powerful food and beverage companies have relied on cheap land and labor to produce inexpensive products and huge profits. But these profits have often come at the cost of the environment and local communities around the world, and have contributed to a food system in crisis." With lack of supply chain transparency, (almost) unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, food waste, exploitation of small-scale farmers, the impact of agriculture on climate change, obesity, diabetes and other effects of sugary, processed food  forming a long list of negative impacts of this sector, we would all be forgiven for going the route of  Neil Boorman in the "Bonfire of the Brands".

Oxfam has little good to say about the food and bev giants, which makes me wonder if this report would not be just a little more persuasive if it were just a little more balanced. Sure, we all know the nasty, negative, effects of big business. That's why the sustainability movement has become what it is. But if we go down the track of painting all business with a big black brush, we may be at risk of overlooking the many positive benefits of economic development and quality of life which these companies have also been responsible for creating. Transparency, accountability, responsibility should not be trade-offs, I agree, but in acknowledging what's not been done, perhaps there should be room for acknowledging what has been done.

By now, you will all have seen that Unilever, Nestle and Coca Cola make it to the top of the list, with highest-scoring Nestle attaining a 54% result, while General Mills, Kellogg's and Associated British Foods trail the pack with scores below 25%. Kudos to Oxfam for making their methodology transparent - you can download the base data of the research to see exactly how points were assigned and scores developed. This is very interesting.

But here's the thing. The Oxfam Behind the Brand ranking is an assessment of policy statements. It's not an assessment of practice:

"Oxfam's Behind the Brands scorecard assesses, scores and ranks food and beverage companies on their corporate policies and commitments aimed at taking responsibility for the social and environmental injustices that lie within their agricultural operations. Only publicly disclosed policies are considered for the scorecard. ...... Oxfam acknowledges that policies are just a first step toward promoting socially and environmentally acceptable practices, and many companies do not actually enforce such policies within their supply chains."

In the question, for example, of  'Does the company explicitly recognize forced labor as an issue?', every company gets full marks.  In the question  'Has the company declared to seek to improve the role of rural women in their supply chain?', only Nestle, Coca Cola and Mondelez get full marks, because they have a policy declaration (and not because they have actually done anything).

I checked out the reference supplied in the Behind the Brand data file as Nestle's response to this question about rural women, and the link goes to a page on the Nestle website on rural development, in which there is one mention of women in one paragraph: 'Long term, we seek to increase the training and support we provide to farmers. In general, such input – focused mainly on the efficient use and conservation of water, land conservation, access to clean water for farming communities, improving the status of women in rural communities and improving education – leads to greater yields of higher-quality and more varied crops for Nestlé, and increased income and higher standards of living for our suppliers'.      Better than nothing, I suppose, but women seem somewhat buried in a range of other priorities.

I guess my point is that I have learned to value action over declaration. In many ways, making a declaration is easy. Backing up that declaration with a set of strategies, policies, plans, goals, targets, metrics, and transparent reporting is not so easy. Standing by your policy declarations in times of conflicting priorities is even more not so easy. We are still in an age where companies are not held to account for the way they have implemented all their policy declarations. Even if all companies have the same policy, where does that leave our sustainable future? In the same place as it is now. Even if they all get 100% scores according to the  Behind the Brands methodology, our global sustainability score may not be any different. This is how Oxfam puts it: "According to the scorecard rankings, Nestlé and Unilever are currently performing better than the other companies, having developed and published more policies aimed at tackling social and environmental risks within their supply chains." Performing better ... having published more policies? Excuse me. Are we on the same planet?   

The question is to what extent we can expect this focus on policy development to be a real precursor to practice development? I'm a reasonable person (mostly, when I have had my daily dose of ice-cream). I tend to agree. So I applaud Oxfam for their massive investment in this research and for highlighting how companies are speaking about sustainable development. Certainly, now, if we want to, we can go and check if the big F&Bs are walking the talk or just publishing it on their websites and in their Sustainability Reports.

But, in reading the Behind the Brands report, let's be clear about what it actually is. An assessment of policy. Not of practice. Not of impacts. Not of sustainability. Not something which would cause me to change my choice of brand or join Neil in putting my Pepsi Max on a bonfire. Perhaps Oxfam might consider a next report that ranks the actual practices of F&B companies against their stated policies and assesses the impacts they create. They could call it "Because of the Brands".

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, winning (CRRA'12) Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  and Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage through Transparency. Contact me via www.twitter.com/elainecohen on Twitter or via my business website www.b-yond.biz  (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Four sustainability reporting trends

The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) has become much more than a carbon disclosure project, now combining climate, water and forest footprints into one holistic natural capital platform, the world's largest and most comprehensive natural capital disclosure system. The 2012 Forest Footprint Annual Review was recently published, the product of the 2012 merger between the FFD (Forest Footprint Disclosure Project) and the CDP.
Nigel Topping is the Chief Innovation Officer of the CSP and he will be speaking at the Smarter Sustainability Conference on Tuesday 5th February in London on the "Impact of natural capital accounting on sustainability reporting - experiences learnt from climate change reporting". Nigel architected CDP's ambitious innovation program, including extending into Supply Chain, Water and Cities and is responsible for CDP's technical roadmap, IT systems, major partnerships with Accenture, SAP, Microsoft and Bloomberg, is a board member/advisor to CDSB, SASB, CBSB and sits on the external sustainability panels of SAP and P&G.
What does the Chief Innovation Officer of the CDP actually do? According to Nigel, "Innovation is the hard work of implementing ideas...not the cool work of coming up with ideas. We don't have a problem with ideas - we always have far more ideas that we have the capacity to implement at any given time. What's no less important is the ability to implement successfully those ideas we want to progress." Nigel has had an interesting background. He started off in Manchester, UK, in manufacturing and was running his first factory in his early 20s. He then spent time in Greenland and Patagonia on expeditions, seeing at first hand the evidence of climate change. Joining the CDP around six years ago, he was driven by a real passion to use the power and creativity of business to address huge global challenges. He has put this passion to good use at the CDP, driving several important programs over the past few years.
One of the things that will make Sustainability Reporting smarter, according to Nigel, is "not having 75 different standards". Convergence is definitely the name of the game, and "we are seeing three forces at play: the extension of the scope of climate change to become a more holistic approach to sustainability - more things are becoming more material; a deepening of understanding that is sector specific - you can't easily compare a utility company with a general retailer; and the emergence of technologies which help classify and process data in a way which will enable it to be used by investors and others (xbrl taxonomy)." Nigel has encouraged partnerships with the CDP to get everyone on board, and the CDP has been engaged in extensive training to help companies work towards clear standards, increase their capability to collect data  and promote assurance of data.
I asked Nigel about the issue of data quality and whether this is of concern, especially given recent issues raised about false claims in Sustainability Reports. Can the CDP be such a great holistic platform without being confident that the data that is disclosed is accurate? Nigel said: "Quality of data is a global issue. There is a reciprocal journey between the provision of data and the use of data. The more people use the data, the more issues are found and get fixed. We have been of the view that it important to get everybody on the train, which is why we have invested significantly in training and educating. We have tried to push assurance, and last year, the assurance level among the global 500 increased by some 40%. We have encouraged this through the CDP by offering higher points for assurance. There are many debates and issues about assurance, not everyone applies assurance to the same standard etc. But the experience is that getting on the train and starting to disclose inevitably supports improvements in the data quality over time."
Nigel summarizes with four key influences which will contribute to the evolution of sustainability reporting.
  • Convergence - of standards and approaches.
  • Holistic reporting - it's all interconnected.
  • Sector specificity - ensuring that disclosures are aligned with sector expectations and impacts
  • Reporting formats - which need to be tailored to different audiences including investors.
Disagree? Agree? Want to know more? Come and hear Nigel and have the opportunity to engage with him in London on 5th February at the second annual Smarter Sustainability Reporting Conference.
elaine cohen, CSR consultant, winning (CRRA'12) Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices Contact me via www.twitter.com/elainecohen   on Twitter or via my business website www.b-yond.biz  (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

See you in London for two exciting thngs ?

I will be in London this coming Tuesday, 5th February at 76 Portland Place doing two very exciting things.

The first is chairing the Smarter Sustainability Reporting Conference, which I blogged about here (reasons not to come :)), and here (with Alexandra Palt of L'Oreal) and here (with Carolyn Panzer of Diageo).

Loads of people (a lot more than last year, probably due to the rave reviews:) ) have confirmed their participation to hear and engage with the latest line-up of worthy  speakers including:
  • Michael Beutler, Sustainability Operations Director at PPR
  • Carolyn Panzer, Sustainability and Responsibility Director, Diageo
  • Alberto Andreu Pinillos, Global Managing Director of Public Affairs, Telefónica
  • Alexandra Palt, Director, Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability, L'Oréal
  • Dr Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer, Aviva Investors
  • Nigel Topping, Chief Innovation Officer, Carbon Disclosure Project
  • James Farrar, Vice President Sustainability, SAP
  • Katie Buchanan, Head of Sustainability & Reporting, Virgin Media
  • Barry Clavin, Ethical Policies and Sustainability Reporting Manager, The Co-operative Group
If you haven't booked your place..... you have a few more minutes left (email me for discount).  I would love to see you there. It's gonna be fun.. and provocative ... and interesting ... and informative... and really really worthwhile. My promise.

The second thing is launching my new book. Yeah! It's called Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage through Transparency and I believe it's the first book specifically targeted at reporting for SMEs.

This is what we are saying about it:

"Develop the transparency habit and enhance the bottom line… Elaine Cohen points you to the actions and tools that will make the biggest difference to the sustainability impacts of your company, and a process for reporting that adds value which is much greater than the printed or online report itself. This book will help SMEs develop 'the transparency habit' so that they both make more money and contribute more proactively to the sustainability of our society and economy. It is vital reading for SME owners and managers, entrepreneurs, business and sustainability students and teachers, and consultants. Sustainability managers in larger organisations will find this book helpful in assisting their organisations manage their supply chains which undoubtedly include several SMEs."
As you can see, this is part of the DoShorts series of books which is a fascinating collection of short sharp shots on focused sustainability subjects, meant to be read in 90 minutes - concise ebooks for busy professionals. When the DoShort team approached me to write this book, I was delighted to be prodded in the direction of doing something I had been thinking of for quite a while. More about reporting, and SMEs and books later... in the meantime, you can see this book for the very first time in print at the Smarter Sustainability Reporting Conference next week.
As I said, two exciting things!

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, winning (CRRA'12) Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices Contact me via www.twitter.com/elainecohen   on Twitter or via my business website www.b-yond.biz  (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)
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