Corporate Eye

Shining transparency into CSR websites

Think of elves … what do you get?

Happy chappies I’ll bet, full of light and song and laughter.  That’s the legacy of Victorian Romantics for you.

In reality their folklore tradition is more complicated.  Often seen as the root of minor ailments, elves were sometimes portrayed as having more malign intentions.

Even in modern literature, the great elf-lord of them all J.R.R Tolkien (not Timothy McGee) made sure there was at least one pure-evil elf in his Middle Earth cycle, Maeglin.

The reason for this odd intro is because this illusion/reality concept reminds me of Canada.

Canada?  Yes, Canada.

Canada’s mining tribulations

We tend to think of Canada as the “good cop” of North America to the US’ “bad cop”.  A much more peaceful and liberal society where everyone is pleasant and polite … heck it even has a greater income per capita than the US!

But there is a darker side to Canada … it’s mining industry.  Canada plays host to 20% of the world’s top mining companies (the same as the UK) and a staggering 75% of the world’s gold mining companies.

However, like most extractive companies the Canadian businesses have their operation largely offshore; and like most extractive companies they’ve hit the buffers of corporate responsibility hard as social and environmental impacts are examined more and more closely.

One of the ways this has manifested is in stronger and stronger calls for Canadian legislators to “rein in” mining misdemeanours overseas through changes to regulation and jurisprudence.  One of the more analytical calls came recently from MiningWatch Canada, which was also published in the Belgian Christian social action publication “En Question”.

The article is entitled Green Mining or Green Washing? Corporate Social Responsibility and the Mining Sector in Canada and it makes fascinating reading for anyone with an interest in how mining can become more responsible.  More to the point, it makes some interesting points about transparency which can be taken up on CSR websites and sustainability reports no matter what the industry.

Reparations for negative impact

Where a business has a definite negative impact upon its social and natural environment it needs to make reparations for those impacts (or face higher taxes if it expects the state to pick up the tab).  These reparations need to be ongoing until the impact has been dealt with, not the subject of a one off contribution which may (or may not) cover the impact’s entirety.

Impacts can range from the huge, such as mining tailings, to the mundane, such as ecological conditions around the office.  The sums of money are unlikely to be huge nor are the subjects likely to be sexy, but they are nevertheless part of corporate responsibility and overall sustainability and so ought to be declared.

Materiality of monies spent

The MiningWatch Canada article highlights one Canadian mining company which donated over US$750,000 to one impacted community in one year while the two top paid executives of the company received packages in excess of US$12 million.

Another example which always buzzes in my bonnet is an international airline whose greatest CSR activity was to donate  the equivalent of one day’s flying costs to an indigenous tribe it had adopted.  Good, yes; but not great.

Businesses need to be careful: data journalism is on the rise and there are plenty of people who are willing to make these kinds of comparisons.  It’s probably wise for companies to make it themselves in the first place with an explanation if they believe they may get criticised.

Engagement with the local population

Any business needs to consider this, and the more centres of business it opens up the more important it becomes.  This is because the daily operation of these centres of business rely upon the communities within which they are based.

This symbiosis is partially expressed by employees using the local facilities at lunch time, but there ought to be a wider engagement at the corporate level as well.  Whether this is through sponsorship, donations or staff release programmes is up to the company.  The point is that declaring the business’ engagement is another small but vitally important part of transparency in responsibility.

Standards and Regulation

This is perhaps the area businesses are most transparent in: after all if you meet regulatory requirements and exceed voluntary standards you’re likely to want to declare this!

The question is though, which standards and where do the loopholes exist?  After all, it’s not much good for your carbon footprint if you follow accountancy standards but not green IT ones.  As the MiningWatch article points out, standards should be primarily about real outcomes, not the management processes which may or may not bring them about.

So it may be worth thinking about which areas of a business are non-standard and declaring those.  This doesn’t mean those areas are sub-standard, but far from it.  But if there is no immediate standard in place to which the company adheres then this should be declared alongside all those standards the company does follow.

The goal of transparency

Ultimately transparency shouldn’t cost very much to implement.  Most of the metrics suggested in this article are probably already known to a business, so it’s just a question of how you look at the data you gather and how you make it public.

Why you should make bad or unflattering data available is a different matter, until you remember the elves this blog started off with.

Elves are those “happy chappies” which all businesses seem to want to be .. laughing gaily as they trip down the road bestowing magical charms on everyone.  The Tolkien-esque version was that they are proud and haughty who are far more likely to allow their self-aggrandisement get in the way of anything actually sensible.

Transparency is a good way for businesses to keep themselves in check and make sure they don’t get carried away with their own self importance.

Picture credit: Light in the dark forest by Christian Guthier under CC Attribution License.

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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.