Over the last month I have been comparing and contrasting corporate social responsibility reports from six major San Francisco Bay Area companies across different sectors.
Gap, eBay, Wells Fargo, SunPower, Chevron, and Salesforce all show their efforts to invest in environmental and community stewardship. Here are the insights and tips I’ve learned through this review process, including what a CSR report should include or exclude.
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First, a key question must be answered: Why develop a corporate social responsibility report in the first place?
There are two main reasons:
- To benchmark a company’s current operations and impact on society and the environment in order to know how and where they can improve.
- To show stakeholders that a company is investing in community and environmental stewardship.
With these objectives in mind, here are five things a good CSR report will do:
1. Focus more on future goals and less on past successes: The purpose of a CSR report should be to understand and showcase how business has been conducted so a company can plot a course to do better. Although sharing the success of your CSR strategy is good, don’t make the mistake of dwelling on the past CSR successes and forget to focus on future goals. A CSR report without clear goals for the next year is like a boat with no compass. If people are going to jump on board with your company, they will want to see where the ship is headed.
In addition, be absolutely clear about your goals and how you plan to achieve them. This helps you and your stakeholders measure the success of that plan.
Examples of measurable goals:
- 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years by putting solar panels on our buildings.
- Converting all office paper to 100 percent recycled paper within the next year by developing an environmentally preferable purchasing policy.
Set goals that are cautiously optimistic, yet obtainable. This way, year after year your company can report progress and avoid setting weak goals.
2. Discuss the elephant in the room: Every business, regardless of how irresponsible it is at a given point, can move toward operating with more sustainability. But how should that company talk about its efforts when people know that the manufacturing process of its products leads to environmental devastation?
The question will come up for any business that consumes more natural resources and produces more waste than it recovers. It is important for a company to address these issues first. This can be accomplished with a simple statement such as:
“We are providing a valuable product or service that helps people with XYZ, and although we acknowledge that the creation and the consumption of our product or service does have consequences on the environment and communities, we are looking at behaviors and technologies we can adopt and invest in to reduce our negative impact.”
If you don’t feel comfortable acknowledging the negative impact of your business, then I would take another look at your motives for writing a CSR report.
3. Avoid a PR nightmare: Focus on sustainable business practices and responsible workplace conditions, rather than on philanthropy. Corporate social responsibility is more about how a company makes a profit than what it does with its profit.
Don’t get me wrong: Philanthropy is definitely part of the CSR story, and my business, REACH The Future, or organizations like Universal Giving would not be in business if it weren’t. However, if a company focuses its CSR efforts on the donations it has made and ignores its toxic chemical pollution and child labor practices, the news media will have a field day.
4. Gain third-party credibility: Nothing will help build integrity, credibility, and transparency to a company’s CSR efforts like third-party reporting or certifications. Many industries have unique reporting tools designed for a specific industry.
Here are some tools that work across industries:
5. Share stats and stories: Stories do a great job of showing the effects that CSR efforts have on your community and the environment. However, they don’t give a company and its stakeholders baseline metrics for evaluating the success of future CSR efforts. A CSR report that is heavy on stories and light on stats comes across as more of a PR initiative than a sincere effort to invest in measurable results. Both are great, but go heavier on stats than on stories.
Here is a helpful tool from Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship that will help guide the creation of a CSR report: How to read a corporate social responsibility report—a user’s guide
Conclusions: Creating a CSR reports takes the effort of many to get all the data, discuss a communications strategy, and get approval from everyone involved. In the end it all comes back to why. Why is any organization creating this report in the first place?
If your intentions are genuine, then people will be OK with your faults and interested in your efforts and strategy to do better. This position yields a brand that is honest and has integrity. If your efforts are motivated by PR, than your CSR report could open up a can of worms that backfires, creating negative press.
These are just some of my insights, and I would love to hear from people who have written CSR reports and/or have been part of the process.
Please share a comment, or let us know some best practices or strategies you have used in creating this type of a document.
Michael Gutman is the founder of REACH The Future. A version of this article first appeared on TriplePundit.