The pain and pleasure of sustainability reporting

The pain and pleasure of sustainability reporting

Whew! Another EMC sustainability report out the door, much to our relief.

If you haven't produced a sustainability report, you should know that it's hard. Harder than you can imagine. And totally worth it.

You'd think it would get easier year after year. But I think I speak for everyone on my (extended) team when I say, "Not so." Yes, much of the content is about long term strategy and not only doesn't need to change year-over-year, but probably shouldn't be changing. (See, for example, Energy & Climate Change Strategy.) And no, we don't feel we need to completely re-design the layout every year either. So why doesn't it get easier?

I'm not sure I know all the reasons, but here are some of them:

  • We keep raising the bar. This is deliberate, but it means that there is more content -- new content plus content that is riskier and more exposed, requiring far more discussion and more approvals.
  • Our stakeholders' expectations keep rising.
  • We learn more every year — how sad if we didn't! — and so we have more to tell.
  • Our company keeps getting more complex through acquisitions, expansion and new offerings.
  • Future goals suddenly become present. We meet them — and need new ones. Or we don't — and need to understand (and explain) why.

Each year, more groups in the company realize the power of the sustainability report as a channel to tell their stories and get more engaged. This is a wonderful thing, and in fact is a better indicator of the progress of our journey than nearly anything actually in the report. But let's be honest: It is more work.

Let me tell you what this year's report took: 

  • More than 80(!) subject matter experts (SMEs) who provide data, submit to interviews, write and/or re-write narrative, review text, verify graphics, re-review text, re-re-review text, approve the final, approve the revised final, and copy-edit the layout. They provided input from supply chain, logistics, manufacturing, engineering, corporate quality, HR, Global Services, EMC University, IT, marketing, legal, government affairs, community involvement, EHS, facilities and real estate, the Global Security Office, the CTO's office, our COEs (Centers of Excellence), internal audit, investor relations, finance, virtually every business unit, our CEO — and, oh: the Office of Sustainability.
  • One hundred forty-one pages of text and graphics. Written, re-written, edited, changed, reviewed, designed, tweaked and approved by the SMEs, authors (sometimes, but not always, the SMEs and sometimes, but not always, consultants), managers of the SMEs, managers of managers of SMEs, marketing, legal and me. On average, I believe I've read each page at least 8-10 times (and that's without the next-to-last round of reviews that I rudely dumped on my team to handle). 
  • The aforementioned consultants who interviewed scores of people, drafted the outlines, did much of the writing, responded to a few ridiculously critical, nit-picking reviewers (who, me?) and applied their experience with the GRI framework to guide our decisions about what content to include and build the GRI Index. 
  • Budget. No, I'm not going to tell you how much. But we did have to pay the consultants (they were worth it) and the design people who did our infographics. 

  • A whole raft of marketing and production people doing the layout, updating the web site (not done yet, but soon), writing the press release, communicating highlights of the report content on emc.com and leveraging social media. 
  • A team of people who committed unbelievable energy to the overall task of getting the report done. They developed content, invented infographics, chased down numbers, surfed for videos and customer stories, collaborated endlessly via email to select graphics, checked layouts, proofread drafts, verified hyperlinks and more. This was my entire, awesome team plus a trio of phenomenally dedicated women from Global Product Operations (providing all the packaging, manufacturing, supply chain, logistics and e-waste content), EHS (providing all the GHG and energy data while at the same time preparing our CDP disclosure — yikes!) and our amazing heroic representative from the Office of General Counsel who read every word even more times than I did to be sure we were consistent, correct and properly trademarked (not to mention avoiding violation of any of the most critical rules of the English language).
  • Erin. If you don't have an Erin to keep track of all this stuff while coordinating the interviews, writing and editing text, searching for consistency in the use of the Oxford comma, negotiating dates and on top of it all, having to supply her manager with data for this blog at the same time — well, good luck to you.

So why bother? There are so many reasons:

  • First and foremost, having to decide what data to report requires that you know what data you have. And don't. And that creates the determination to instrument processes that may not yet be measured. You won't see those metrics in the current report, but it drives improvement in our processes going forward and will show up in a future report.
  • Ditto when it comes to goals.
  • The need to articulate strategies and challenges really drives alignment up and down organizations and across groups.
  • Shining a light on what employees have accomplished makes us all proud. (I just met a young man from one of the product groups who, totally not knowing my role, was telling me how proud he was to work for a company that was so committed to product stewardship. Honestly, I teared up!) 
  • Communicating to stakeholders. Oh, shouldn't I have said this first? Isn't this the whole point? I guess so. But we don't want to lose our commitment to the principle that having an impact is even more important than talking about it! And by "stakeholders," I mean first and foremost, employees. Also customers, partners, neighbors, suppliers, NGOs, academia, future employees, government and anyone else who cares not only what we do, but how we do it.
  • Seeing the big picture. I pride myself on being able to see the big picture from the many bits and pieces that bombard me every day. But the truth is that each year when I read the full report, I develop a new appreciation of the scope of work behind and before us.

Yes, I do worry about the reporting tail wagging the sustainability dog. That's why I'm not keen on the many surveys, ratings, requests to sign narrow statements of commitment on a single geography, demands for data that are not material to our business, etc. But basic sustainability reporting? It may change form, it may merge with other kinds of reporting, but it's not going away at EMC anytime soon.

Oops — gotta run. Time to start planning the 2013 report ... as soon as we finish the CDP Carbon Disclosure, DJSI submission, CDP Water Disclosure and CDP Supply Chain responses. AARGH!