Henkel's 20-Year View of Sustainability Reporting

I got a PR pitch recently about a multinational company’s just-published sustainability report. Nothing new there; I get those dozens of times a year. They’re sometimes interesting, though only rarely newsworthy.

This one was for the Henkel, the German-based maker of brands and technologies for laundry and home care products, cosmetics and toiletries, and adhesives. Henkel’s report seemed solid -- the company’s sustainability performance was outpacing its targets, etc. No big deal. I prepared to move on to the next thing.

But one thing jumped out: This was Henkel’s 20th annual report. That puts the company at the head of the class. Only a handful of firms have issued such reports annually for 20 years.

Intrigued, I reached out to Uwe Bergmann, Head of Sustainability Management at the Dusseldorf-based company. I wanted to know what Henkel had learned about sustainability reporting over the past two decades.

Bergmann has been with Henkel since 2000, “so technically this is my eleventh,” he quickly pointed out. But he’s no stranger to reporting. “I did my first bachelor project on reporting in 1995 and included Henkel’s report back then, and then again in my master thesis later on.”

Henkel’s first sustainability report came in 1992, the year of the Rio Earth Summit. That event spurred a handful of companies -- probably no more than a couple dozen -- to publish reports on their environmental commitments and performance, among them Bank of America, Baxter, British Telecom, Ciba-Gigy (now part of Novartis), Dupont, and Shell. These weren’t the first companies to report -- a few others first issued reports in the 1980s, notably from the chemical industry, which was under fire by activists for toxic misdeeds.

At Henkel, the assumption was that its first report would be followed two years later by its second -- a pace other companies were taking. But, says Bergmann, “There was so much internal and external feedback that we decided that we were going to account for it annually.”

He recalls: “The first one was very much centered on Germany and the data was basically just the headquarters, our biggest production site. Over time, the number or production sites we included increased to the bigger international sites. Nowadays we cover [sites representing] 98 percent of the production volume.” The quality of reporting grew, too, to include more aspects of Henkel’s operations, and some of its suppliers’ impacts. Over the years, the scope of the report broadened from environmental topics to include safety and health (starting in 1998), and sustainability (starting in 2001).

I plied Bergmann with questions to garner some of the lessons Henkel has learned from all these years of reporting. Following is an edited summary of what he shared.

Is the report an end unto itself or a tool for continuous improvement?

I would say it’s the end of a process. I mean, we report about our progress of the previous year. So, whatever is in there we have done and conceptualized. But the discipline of writing the report obviously gives some rationale to continuously work on your systems, on your coverage of reporting systems and gives the whole exercise an element of discipline.

You have to separate between the sustainability report and our internal reporting tools. We have tools to report our data from the sites and they do a quarterly reporting on their environmental data. And you have occupational health and safety reporting tools where you track any accident that happens.

Who is the principal audience for the report?

There are a number of expert audiences, especially in the socially and ethical investment community, and they will spend a lot of time reading it very intensively. Also universities. Internal audiences or customers won’t be reading it as intensively back-to-back but will be going through picking out interesting stories. So it’s basically a Swiss Army knife.

We try to write it in a way that it’s understandable for interested lay people, and there’s a lot of them around. They can be working for our customers. They can be working for authorities, or they can be interested teachers in the community or just interested consumers. So, they have to be able to understand it. It also has to be relevant and substantial enough for the expert audiences social and ethical investment specialists or even sustainability specialists, such as customers who assess their suppliers.

So, we try to cover all of those. And the feedback so far has been that we’re doing fairly successfully by having a pretty compact format, having the relevant examples, but pretty understandable language.