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CSR Reports: Absolutely Radical or Relatively Transparent?

Joel Makower's commentary on "radical transparency" and Marc Gunther's post on Wal-Mart's growing greenhouse gas emissions lead to a common question: How should corporations frame sustainability goals and achievements in reporting and communications?

Joel Makower's commentary on radical transparency and Marc Gunther's post on Wal-Mart's growing greenhouse gas emissions lead to a common question: How should corporations frame sustainability goals and achievements in reporting and communications?

The environmental metrics headlining Corporate Social Responsibility/sustainability report executive summaries and press releases tend to be "eco-efficiency" measures -- numbers defined relative to units of production (pounds, liters, servings, etc.) or operations (square footage) -- rather than absolute totals. Eco-efficiency measures generally show significant improvement, making them much more PR-friendly than absolute totals, which typically indicate an expanding ecological footprint.

A closer look at CSR/sustainability reports shows that some companies leave totals out of their reports altogether, effectively preventing stakeholders from assessing an enterprise's true environmental and social impact and driving appropriate, informed change. When companies do include totals, one must dig into the details of a CSR/sustainability report and free their mind of high-impact headlines and executive summaries.

Is obscuring or omitting totals deceptive? Both practices effectively tip the seesaw of sustainability reporting toward an overwhelmingly positive view. Might it be greenwashing to highlight eco-efficiency improvements while keeping one's ever larger ecological footwear in the closet? This seems similar to one of TerraChoice's "Seven Sins of Greenwash," the "hidden tradeoffs" that call out positive attributes while hiding negative ones. Shouldn't CSR/sustainability reporting and related communications be held to the same standards?

For those who say yes, and feel "radical transparency" should require both relative and absolute measures, are we willing to reconsider our tendency to blame business alone for increased totals and absolve any responsibility for solutions? After all, such excesses are exacerbated by our own growing consumption to a degree. Wal-Mart's emissions are climbing because consumers are driving there in ever larger droves and returning replete with some amount of unnecessary goods. The same can be said for any consumer products company or retailer's eco-impact. Its size is a reflection of both producer and consumer.

Going a step further, should companies report metrics in context, as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) indicates, helping consumers makes sense of the larger sea of numbers? Increased transparency is of little use without practical translation. For example, how many consumers understand what it really means to withdraw, say, one billion gallons of water from a water-rich region versus a drought-affected one? How many consumers take note that few businesses have greenhouse gas reduction goals that even come close to the reduction targets set forth as critical minimums by the IPCC? Dr. Mark McElroy of the Center for Sustainable Innovation has made a case for this in the "True Sustainability Index," a set of suggested content-based metrics for CSR/sustainability reporting. He's also outlined a methodology for this model, offering a key tool to move from ideals to implementation.

Perhaps the biggest question is how any such reporting standards will become a reality so the playing field is level and consumers know what they're buying into. Best practice guidance, such as the GRI, call for both relative and absolute metrics. Yet, few companies oblige. Is it time to expand the FTC Green Guides to CSR/sustainability reporting and communications? Would such a process be manageable and a wise use of resources, or would it divert our attention and efforts toward reporting for its own sake and away from the kinds of real actions we need to take to realize true sustainability?

Melissa Schweisguth is a corporate CSR manager who also sits on the advisory board for Big Tree Climate Fund, metrics committees for the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops and working committees for the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association.

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