How to sustain your audience for CSR data

There are signs of growing sophistication in presenting sustainability numbers online, but most large companies still fall short on the basics, Jason Sumner says.

The audience for raw data around corporate social responsibility (CSR) – greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, employee injury tallies and the like – is small compared to other groups who visit corporate websites.

But the ‘CSR community’, whether socially responsible investment analysts, supply chain responsibility consultants, NGO staffers or, indeed, other corporate CSR communication teams, punches above its weight when it comes to swaying public opinion and affecting corporate reputations. That is why large companies often lump them in with other ‘influencer’ audiences, such as journalists, who come to the site seeking specific information (and are particularly valuable if they go away satisfied).

So how well is this small but influential band of CSR stakeholders being served in one of its core needs – relevant, high-quality CSR data that is easy to access, visually interesting and externally verified?

Merck: Good on goals

A handful of large companies is doing very well, as demonstrated by the latest edition of the FT Bowen Craggs Index of corporate online effectiveness (published earlier this month). Four companies, Merck, Eni, Rio Tinto and Unilever, are joint first in the Index’s metric for ‘serving the CSR profession’, with each scoring nine out of a possible 10 points.

Merck, the US pharmaceutical giant, which saw its score increase from eight to nine, has a dedicated microsite with clear routes to detailed data on a number of pharma-appropriate subject areas including access to health, environmental sustainability, employee related issues, and ethics and transparency. Merck is especially good on reporting against targets, something relatively few large companies even attempt, presumably because of the thorny reputational problems that can ensue if targets are declared and then missed.

A page on Merck’s ‘environmental goals’ provides clear tables and charts outlining progress to goals set in 2010. For example, the company reports it has reduced water use by 16% from 2009, against targets of 15% by 2015 and 25% by 2020. It is not afraid to publish less than stellar progress either – being only 3% of the way along in reducing greenhouse gases, for example, against a 2020 target of reducing emissions by 15% from 2012 levels.

Eni: Do-it-yourself charting

Eni, the Italian oil & gas company, in addition to a comprehensive range of data over a three-year span, has an excellent interactive charting tool, with the ability to make custom charts (and the option to download the data in Excel) from numerous data sets covering figures on employees, the environment local development and others.

Rio Tinto: Material matters

The Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto is in arguably the most CSR-sensitive industry, so we would expect a high standard of openness, and it does not disappoint. There is a wide range of well-presented data on its website. A plain-speaking summary on its ‘Our performance’ page, explains exactly where data can be found, has a list of the eight third-party checklists it reports against, including the Global Reporting Initiative and the UN Global Compact, as well as quick links to the company’s ‘materiality assessment’. Materiality, which means addressing CSR issues of most importance to stakeholders and the company’s long-term performance, is one of the cutting edge issues in CSR, and Rio Tinto has one of the more useful tables in the Index.

Unilever: Blue, green, orange

If reporting progress against a comprehensive targets is rare among large companies, Unilever’s creative ‘traffic light’ system is rarer still. Within the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods conglomerate’s ‘Sustainable Living’ section, is a list of goals and progress, marked with a colour-coding system to indicate whether the goal is on-target, off-target, achieved or partly achieved. Like Merck, Unilever is admirably open about areas where it is falling short. For example, in reference to its target to ‘reach 200m customers by 2015’ and ‘400m by 2020’ with products to help them use less water while showering, it says, it is ‘off plan’ and ‘progress remains slow’ (although exact numbers would be even more useful).

Best of the rest

In the next tier (the some two dozen companies scoring eight out of 10 points in the ‘serving the CSR profession’ metric) there are several more examples of good practice. SABMiller has a useful table on ‘economic development contributions’ (another emerging practice in CSR circles). Nestlé has a ‘materiality matrix’ of similar quality to Rio Tinto’s (see above). British American Tobacco reports clearly against GRI principles, with a visually appealing, clickable table complete with icons according to which principles on which it fully reports, partially reports or does not consider ‘material’.

Lacking the basics

Despite progress on data signposting, depth and creative presentation among some companies in the Index, many are struggling with providing even a basic service. Take the seemingly simple question of where to house data and how to lead people to it. The array of options – the main website, a microsite, annual report, integrated report, etc – seem to be causing confusion, with poor signposting and multiple (often very hidden) locations all too frequent. Even BAT and Eni, which do very well in many areas, still have trouble with this. Top performers show the way: it doesn’t necessarily matter where the data is housed, as long as there are clear signposts from the main website (which will be the first port of call for most CSR professionals), a good summary and a well-defined hierarchy of deeper navigation for those who want more detail.

Middling scorers in the Index are let down by other foibles – CSR sections that are dominated by marketing-speak (see Wal-Mart Stores for example), or lack of reporting against recognised guidelines such as the GRI (see ConocoPhillips).

Curious and curiouser: Schlumberger and Google

Two curious examples reside near the bottom. Schlumberger, the oil services giant, publishes no data of substance on its website (nor does it have a CSR report). This increasingly out of step for a company as large as Schlumberger, let alone one in the oil & gas sector.

In the tech industry, Google also does not publish a CSR report. It does have a ‘Google Green’ site, which focuses on anecdotal evidence for its commitments to use more renewable energy, and also describes how its products reduce carbon footprints (by using Google Maps to make a more efficient journey, for example). The company actually performs much better in the Index for communicating its environmental efforts across the web estate, but there is little detailed performance data of interest to CSR professionals. The lack of data is especially surprising for an international company that is so much in the public eye; with such large, quantifiable environmental impacts (think data centres and power consumption); and whose motto remains ‘Don’t be evil’.

First published 29 October, 2014
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