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The State of the Art of CSR Reporting
Gil Friend, 15 May 05

Gil Friend is a systems ecologist and business strategist, and is the CEO of Natural Logic, an environmentally-focused strategy, design and management consultancy. He writes occasional essays on sustainable business for our Sustainability Sunday feature.

Earlier this month, I asked what corporate social responsponsibility reports really tell us:

With some 2000-3000 companies worldwide producing "corporate social responsibility" (or citizenship or environmental or sustainability) reports, it's time to ask both "how good are they?" and "what do they really tell us?"

At that time, I promised to share the results of an unscientific survey of CSR reporters, conducted in late 2004 in collaboration with Here, as promised, is a summary of our key findings:

* Audience: While most people think of CSR reports as aimed at external audiences, employees were cited as the most important audience for these reports, with external stakeholders a close second; company management is far behind, with NGOs and media the least important.

* Format: Reports continue to move from print based to on-line, but most respondents seem to have a rather limited definition of "interactivity" and a limited vision of just how these reports can
impact employees and management.

* Report Integration: While most companies publish separate CSR reports and annual reports, there is clear interest in integrating them in some way -- combined reports; synchronized and jointly released reports; summarizing the CSR report within the annual report - yet substantial concern over the difficulties of doing so.

* Data management: Companies are greatly concerned with the accuracy of the data they collect and report, as well as with the timeliness, and complexity of the data management process.

* Reporting Systems: Despite increasing discussion of automation of data management and integration with management systems, companies -- even very sophisticated ones -- are still largely dependent on spreadsheets for data collection and management, though a significant minority have built custom applications.

* The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is important or very important for most companies, yet of little of no importance for a significant minority.

There are many conclusions one could draw from this sort of survey.
Here are a few of mine:

* CSR reports are becoming a more permanent feature of the business landscape

* GRI continues to make inroads as the presumptive standard

* Recognition of the potential business value of CSR reporting is still growing, but companies are still struggling to learn how to best realize that value

* CSR reporting still labors under inefficient processes that would not be tolerated for more mission critical tasks.

And some recommendations:

* When identifying the audience(s) for a CSR report -- a decision that should rightly influence reporting strategy, content, delivery systems and design -- consider both how they use it, and how they could use it. To do that successfully, engage potential audiences early in the development process, expand their horizons about possible uses, approaches and supporting technologies; listen to what they say, but also -- and usability experts always remind us -- watch what they do.

* Once clear on audiences and objectives, track and follow up to see how well the report meets those objectives: does it reinforce strategic alignment? grow awareness? impact behavior? impact performance?

* Move away from error-prone, slow and expensive spreadsheet-based data management by integrating CSR systems with management systems; replace once-a-year batch processing of CSR data with real-time data gathering and display.

* Use the web, Luke! Downloadable PDF files does not interactivity make. Provide a user-centric web experience that enables different stakeholders to find the information most meaningful to them.

(Like any observer, I bring my own perspective: Natural Logic works with reporting companies -- and with the firms that develop and produce CSR reports on their behalf -- to reduce the pain and increase the value of CSR reporting.)

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I'm still not over this bizarre combination of words: "corporate" - "social" - and "responsability". It doesn't make sense.

-When you're a corporation, per definition you are fighting the social and the socius.
-When you're social, per definition you are fighting the a-social logic of corporations
-And you can only truly call someone "responsible" if he's defending the socius.

There is no post-modern blurring of lines here, not even a dialectic of opposites. No nuance.

Wouldn't it be better if corporations were really responsible, that is, instead of using such nonsensical neologist acronyms like "CSR", they would state clearly that they are:

-against the globalization of social rights
-against a global level playing field when it comes to labor standards
-against political economists who show what capital is truly about
-against the philosophical notion which says that corporations are commercial, profit making groups which need to continuously create and induce artificial "needs" into people, with whatever means possible - fear being one of the most widely used
-against those who point out that corporations are, per definition and systematically machines that need inequality in order to operate (this is a simple economic principle - capital is based on the maintenance of inequality)

Why recuperate a social discourse to use it in corporate discourse?

I understand that there's a trend on the other side of the Atlantic, where corporations accaparate all critical discourses, consume them, and integrate them so that they are "tamed".

But I had never thought that someone would actually take this seriously and not look beyond it.

Well, maybe it's just my European, leftist background screaming here.

Posted by: Lou on 16 May 05



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