Walking the tightrope: What I learned reporting for GreenBiz

GreenBiz Evergreen

Walking the tightrope: What I learned reporting for GreenBiz

Our column GreenBiz Evergreen brings to light GreenBiz stories from the past that remain relevant today. As students settle back into their desks, we're resurfacing this great account of an education in business sustainability. Author Keith Larsen, a reporting intern for us in 2015, is now pursuing a Masters degree in business and media at the University of North Carolina.

When I started my internship with GreenBiz, I assumed that once I learned the terminology, reporting on the business of sustainability would be a proverbial walk in the park. Besides, I supposed I knew the basics of sustainability reporting: Climate change is bad; we’re running out of water; and companies need to be more green. 

After my first week at GreenBiz, I realized how mistaken I was.

I soon learned the business of sustainability is a vastly important and underreported segment of the corporate world, and reporting on it is no easy task. I began feeling as if I tremulously were walking a tightrope, grasping to keep my balance above tireless public relation specialists on one side and vociferous environmentalists on the other.

My boss, GreenBiz overlord Joel Makower, previously said that sustainability is a difficult story for businesses to tell. As I began my work at GreenBiz, I soon recognized that reporting on sustainability carries this same burden.

Objective yet skeptical

My job as a journalist is to remain objective, yet skeptical, while reporting the facts so that the readers can form their own opinions. However, reporting on sustainability for GreenBiz, I've been mired in the challenging question of how best to relay these facts.

On one side, as journalists our responsibility is to describe the true significance and impact of a company's sustainability initiatives, including that some companies’ endeavors are marginal at best and likely include committing environmental injustices in the past.

On the other hand, I am constantly reminded that most initiatives that companies engage in are completely voluntary.

Regardless whether their sustainability actions are for purely promotional purposes, companies do not have to do them. You can argue that sustainability may be good for businesses or branding or marketing, but legally companies still largely act of their own free will.

This makes my job difficult. For instance, it is great that company X is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 10 or 20 percent over three years, but how much is 20 percent when the company as a whole is still emitting vast amounts of greenhouse gases? And why did it take them three years to make this move?

Also, are these numbers verifiable? And if other companies in the industry are not even releasing any information about emissions, how do I provide an appropriate comparison?

Thus, my tightrope: trying to be objective, fair and accurate while companies send an endless stream of press releases and story pitches into my inbox telling me why they are so very sustainable, all while some environmental group claims that we are aligning with the enemy.

At GreenBiz I generally focused on the finance and accounting side of this business, reporting on broader concepts such as stranded assets, materiality and tying sustainability to executive compensation.

Through my previous internship, where I investigated and reported on corporate financial wrongdoing, I learned how corporations often go to great lengths to camouflage and disguise information in their quarterly SEC filings or 10-Ks.

Yet, when I began reporting on how companies are disclosing sustainability information in their annual filings, I realized that companies did not even have to disguise their carbon emissions, or can camouflage pressing environmental concerns such as droughts or climate change as material risks in their 10-K because doing so isn’t even required.

Moving the goalposts

This may be best highlighted in a long feature I wrote about Kraft. In the food and drink company’s 10-K for 2014, it neglected to mention sustainability once, while also omitting climate change as a potential risk.

The company did, however, list its sustainability goals on its website. But currently on the website, the target and base years the company uses to measure its sustainability goals are different from the years that the company used in the past. While previously the company listed 2010 as a base year with 2015 as a target year for reaching its sustainability goals, information currently on the website uses 2005 as a base year and abstains from mentioning those 2015 targets at all. That is, it seems to have moved the goalposts.

Kraft’s lack of disclosure and changing metrics perhaps best signify the enduring challenge of reporting on corporate sustainability by raising the question: What matters? And when things do seem to matter, how do you verify the information and what are the agreed-upon standards?

Adding to this, there always seem to be new sustainability rankings and surveys and standards, but because much of sustainability is voluntary and subjective and qualitative, how accurate are these? And do they even matter if the ultimate goal is just to get companies to integrate sustainability into operations to the best of their abilities?

Because Joel wanted me to frame this piece as a "what I’ve learned" column, here’s what I’ve learned:

I’ve learned that these are not questions I can answer. Rather these are questions that lie within every realm of sustainability, and that my job as a journalist is simply to raise awareness about them.

Maybe what I’ve learned most of all is that, as sustainability becomes a more integral facet of business, companies are beginning to need to answer these questions themselves.

Or perhaps my job is simply to continue to walk the perpetual tightrope with my fellow GreenBiz reporters while I yell to the incoming intern not to look down.