Beyoncé, Lance Armstrong and the sustainability report?

by Dr Robyn Leeson

The Global Reporting Initiative will launch the 4th iteration of The Guidelines - G4 - in May this year. On the conclusion of last week’s GRI Stakeholder Council meeting, I found myself reflecting on Gary Younge’s recent article in The Guardian ‘From Beyoncé to horse meat to Lance Armstrong’.

Younge lists some recent and very public deceptions – Beyoncé lip synching the national anthem at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony, Tesco’s recent “horse meat in the 100% beefburger” scandal and the long-standing theatre that is Lance Armstrong. Younge argues that “these moments of deception go beyond sport and show business. They are emblematic of a culture where marketing trumps over sincerity and what is fake is openly and actively promoted over what is true. Authenticity and transparency, it turns out, are just two options among many.”

Can the same be said of sustainability reports? A recent spate of research papers and other commentaries have pointed out an uncomfortably wide gap between the claims made in reports, particularly the GRI index, and what is actually reported.

The reasons for this are many and varied and ranging from incompetence and laziness as well as the possibility of deliberate and calculated deception on the part of some reporters. This represents a different critique of reporting and report quality. For me, the challenge Younge’s article poses is the role in reporting for marketing and communications professionals. We have all read long, text heavy, dry reports which slavishly apply various standards including the GRI Guidelines. Photographs, if they have any, are irrelevant or tokenistic and data presented is complex and inaccessible. The increasing involvement of marketing and communications professionals inside companies and as service providers in reporting has resulted in some welcome changes. The use of infographics, web-design, colourful photographs and even more colourful narrative can truly bring a report to life and increase readership.

However, this shouldn’t be pursued at the expense of rigor through the application of reporting principles and verifiable data. Sustainability reporting is a broad church of practice in which the extremes of public relations exercises at one end and slabs of text and impenetrable numbers at the other must give way to something better. I would argue that readership numbers suffer at both ends. Great reports tell a compelling story in a way that stakeholders will read and use. However, they do this within a continuous improvement approach which leverages the consistent use of standards, guidelines and robust data. Authenticity and transparency cannot be “options among many” in sustainability reporting. Stakeholder trust is too easy to lose.

For further information visit:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/27/we-ought-to-care-beyonce-faked-it

http://somo.nl/news-en/somo-news/three-different-research-projects-detect-the-same-shortcomings-in-sustainability-reports

Dr Robyn Leeson is a Director of Net Balance (robyn@netbalance.com), 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Robyn is a member of GRI’s Stakeholder Council and Technical Advisory Committee and is based in Melbourne.