Corporate Eye

The Future of Sustainability Reports

You know when you’re in awards season in the film industry. Everyone seems to be handing out trophies, statuettes and gongs. Paparazzi snap away at gleaming white teeth while fashionistas obsess over the width of stars’ shoulder straps.

After a while the endless cycle of red carpets and acceptance speeches starts to get a little draining and you can end up wishing that Hollywood would crawl back under its habitual rock on the other side of the pond.

Sustainability Reporting is starting to establish a similar annual love in.

To date no red carpets have been rolled out in Bloomsbury, London, the base of the Institute for Social & Ethical Accountability. Nor has Professor Mervyn E. King, chair of GRI’s Board of Directors, been flashing his whitened teeth to assorted paparazzi.

However, a Sustainability Reporting Awards Season appears to be developing all by itself. Last week we reported on the Ceres/ACCA award shared by Timberland and Ford. This week it’s the turn of the GRI Readers’ Choice Awards.

Democratising The Judges
There are several major differences between the two sets of awards. The most striking is how the awards are decided.

The Ceres/ACCA one is decided upon in the time-honoured tradition of a panel of judges drawn from the good and the great.

The GRI Readers Choice Awards, by contrast, are decided by a self selecting panel of GRI interested parties from across the World. Each of these “readers” has to score at least two reports against a set of five criteria.

The initial short list was made up of those reports which gained the greatest volume of interest and the widest spread of scores across the criteria. This shortlist was then sifted before the final awards were presented.

The award categories were based upon the stakeholder group (e.g. journalist, analyst, employee etc) which readers were drawn from, plus three special awards and one overall winner.

An Ironic Result
The shortlist contained many of the usual suspects, including Bayer, Nokia, BP, Coca Cola, and GAP. The metaphorical white teeth were starting to flash as the usual suspects prepared to step up and take the award.

However, in the end not one western multinational won an award. Not one.

Of the fifteen awards and runners up positions decided by the readers, ten were won by Brazilian or Indian companies.

This is particularly ironic as one of the special award categories had been created to recognise awards from non OECD countries. Both Brazil nor India are non-OECD countries.

The rest of the awards and runners up positions went to European companies, meaning that there was no North American representation at all.

A new type of report
The question has to be asked: Why? Could it have been the geographical spread of the readers participating in the project?

Certainly it is surprising to find that only 5% of the total respondents came from North America. However, nearly 30% came from the Asia/Pacific region and over 40% from Europe. The largest number of readers from a single country was Spain.

So there’s no inherent bias in the readers themselves; something more than national or cultural pride must have caused this dramatic result. Very simply, it’s the depth and quality of the reports themselves.

Fulfilling its Destiny
The Readers’ Choice Award was launched specifically to find out which reports were favoured by those who actually use them: journalists, investors, employees and so on.

The reports which came out on top are those which presented all the information stakeholders may find of interest in a straightforward and easily digestible manner.

This is in a marked contrast to many of the Sustainability Reports published by London Stock Market listed companies. Often these feel like financial reports with a different vocabulary being used. Some are stodgy, others almost non-existent.

Rarely do they speak to all stakeholders in a clear voice, using language which all stakeholders can appreciate and understand.

This is not to say that the winning reports are particularly brief. The winner of the employee award, from ITC in India, is over 80 pages long. The overall winner, from Petrobras in Brazil, is 160 pages long.

However, they’re not designed to be read only by analysts, from beginning to end. Rather, they’re put together more like an encyclopaedia, allowing differing stakeholders to find and learn what concerns them the most.

The Future
In addition, the Sustainability section of these companies’ websites is far more innovative than simply providing a link to a PDF document or reproducing the contents in HTML.

If Sustainability Reporting starts to achieve its social ambition of stakeholder inclusivity, then democratised schemes such as the Readers’ Choice Award may see an exponential increase in significance.

Certainly this inaugural set of awards has blazed a trail which will make larger and ostensibly “better” companies sit up and take note. The future may have just arrived.

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A former CTO, Chris has a broad and varied background. He’s been involved with blue chips, consultancies & SMEs across a wide variety of sectors and has worked in Europe, the Middle East and Australia. In 2007 he decided to combine his knowledge of business and IT with his passion for all things sustainable and has been busy writing ever since. However, his greatest ambition remains to brew the perfect cup of coffee.

There is a danger that we get carried-away with reporting and I am concerned that these award ceremonies do little to progress action but simply reward those that know how best to present themselves. There is extreme irony in an oil company winning a sustainability award and squaring the reality of Petrobas with this achievement is a stetch, at least for me. We are still some way from the transparency required to make GRI a credible indicator and the focus needs to be on this rather than questionable awards.


Your concerns are well targeted and I share them all.

On the subject of transparency, I believe having awards voted for by practitioners and other users of reports will help keep sustainability a collaborative venture.

Similarly, Petrobas’ website and report is astounding in it’s level of disclosure and on this it puts other businesses who are purportedly more ethical to shame.

Best wishes


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