Early environmental reports were thinly veiled public relations exercises. Dubbed “greenwash,” they angered many stakeholders. Over the past decade, industry, regulatory agencies, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have issued more than 30 standards for corporate reporting. Clearly, there are more guidance and tools available today, but has actual practice met stakeholder needs? The EH&S Advisor offers some suggestions for making your reporting credible. It’s harder than you think, judging from our evaluation of recent reports. Reporting has grown more sophisticated, but so too have expectations and analysis techniques. What may be viewed by many as excellentm reporting may be judged by others as flawed, inconsistent, and even deceitful. How do you avoid the greenwash traps that can prove to be embarrassing, if not damaging to your company’s reputation? Start with a three-dimensional evaluation.
UNDER THE MAGNIFYING GLASS
The cardinal rule in reporting, as with most things in life, is that if you are going to do it, do it right, or don’t do it in the first place. Most companies employ their communications departments to take the lead in preparing these reports. The environmental department provides input, and the law department acts as a screen to ensure that no potentially damaging information is released. This simple model may not fare well in the future. What is often missing is input and a reality check by individuals with the latest knowledge of reporting practices and issues.
The Web-based International Corporate Environmental Reporting Site in the Netherlands is widely regarded as the premier clearinghouse for environmental reporting developments.1 Folkert van der Molen, the site’s manager, has seen an exponential growth in the interest in environmental reporting. He states, “There is no excuse today for producing a sub-standard report. The tools and techniques are available, but it is such a rapidly evolving area that considerable effort is necessary to just keep abreast of developments.”
Bristol-Myers Squibb is an excellent example of a company that is doing it right. Issued biannually since 1993, their reports have consistently received praise. The most recent issue, from 1999, is generally regarded as one of the best in the world and is the first report to employ the draft Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. 2 This is significant in and of itself, since the GRI reporting framework focuses on the broader issue of the triple bottom line: economic, social, and environmental reporting.
The success of their recent report is well known. What is not widely known is the effort that went on behind the scenes. Bristol-Myers Squibb was not content with past successes and chose to seek external review of the 1999 draft from members of their EH&S External Advisory Group.3 George Nagle, senior director of EH&S, reported that “some might think it’s tough opening yourself up to informal and candid feedback from multiple external stakeholder
groups. We have found that this dialogue is essential to our design process.”
Environmental reports are coming under rigorous analysis by more competent readers with ever-higher expectations. A transition is occurring, which will eventually subject these reports to the same professional scrutiny that financial reports receive today. Financial
reports are much more than booklets written by communications specialists who are fed information and then spin
it to make the company look good. They are carefully prepared documents that are critically examined at many levels and perspectives within the company.