10 reasons NOT to write a CSR report

The pressure to report may be increasing - but that doesn't mean your company has to jump into the reporting pool. Elaine Cohen outlines ten valid arguments for the debut CSR report to be put on hold

I suspect that most people could come up with thousands of reasons not to write a CSR report and all are probably true, but some are truer than others. I suspect there are more companies asking themselves why not write a report today, rather than asking why. The pressure to report is increasing and more companies are joining the reporting pool each year. So here are ten reasons not to write a (first) report.

1. You have nothing to report
It is never perfect. There is always more you can do in terms of sustainability performance before you launch the process of writing your first report. There is always a balance to be found between a lightweight report and a content-rich report. You should not wait until you have got everything nailed down before you report (because you never have everything nailed down). But frankly, if you have no sustainability performance to report in any of the core areas of your business operations, then producing a compilation of CSR marketing-oriented mumbo jumbo and calling it a sustainability report won’t cut it. By all means, produce a CSR brochure, or a CSR statement or a CSR policy paper. But a report should contain disclosures of performance and not just intention.

So if you have not got it, do not report it. Work on getting it.

2. Your sustainability performance is really awful

So you measure your carbon footprint and it has been increasing year on year. You had five fatalities in your operations last year. Employee engagement survey results show that more are disengaged than engaged. You just paid a £30M lawsuit for gender discrimination. Your supply chain audit showed that most suppliers are not compliant. Your CSO has just resigned. Now is not the time to publish your first sustainability report. Get working on addressing the issues. Get some good process in place. Then think about reporting.

3. You have no data-collection processes in place
Your first report should not stress out the organisation in a way which immobilises it because none of the data flows that measure sustainability performance are in place. If you have no data at all in your business – you have been recycling but you have not measured the volume, you have reduced waste but you do not know by how much, you have had calls to your ethics hotline but you don’t know how many, you have reduced employee turnover but you have not measured turnover rates, etc – then you have to concentrate on getting data infrastructures in place. It is better to postpone publishing your first report than to publish one with inadequate basic data.

4. Your data is not reliable

You still work on excel and your data aggregation relies on many different individual inputs from around your company’s globe.

You have no formal internal auditing procedures in place and you cannot be sure that the data is reliable. Why publish it? You will only have to issue corrections down the line, which can create credibility issues. Make sure your data is robust and accurate before publishing your first report.

5. You are in your first year of business

No matter how strong your commitment is to sustainability and even if your business was founded along sustainability principles, one year is not enough to demonstrate performance in all three triple bottom line areas of sustainability. You might have had a good first year, but wait to see if your second year is similar. Publish a first report only after two full years of business.

6. You have no budget
Yep, sorry to tell you this, folks, but reporting costs money. It may come as no surprise that I recommend using a consultant who specialises in writing sustainability reports (yes, OK, like me), especially if this is your first report. This is based on experience. I have several clients who have produced their own report in-house and then come to ask me to turn it into, well, a report. One client recently confirmed that their management said they “can now appreciate what a quality report looks like” after using our report-writing services, the first time they have used an external provider. There is no getting away from the fact that reporting is not something anyone can do just because they work in the sustainability area and can string a few coherent sentences together. Sustainability reporting, for it to benefit both the company and speak to its stakeholders, requires experience and skill. For a first report, allocate some money to make that happen well.

7. You have no time
Clients come to me saying, “We want a report in three months”. For a seasoned reporter, whose data flows are well oiled and who have very detailed logging of sustainability events throughout the year, I suspect this may be possible (though I have never been part of a reporting process which has been completed from start to publication in three months).

For others, well, reporting is not an off-the-shelf product. The reporting process takes time. It has to.
It requires a different approach to presenting the business performance and a different set of stories and data-points. These take time to develop. It involves many people for whom reporting is not their most urgent priority and who have many other things to do. People go on holiday. People are sick. People just do not get around to it. You have to have enough slack in your process to allow for all of this. If you have no time in your schedule for whatever reason to allocate a realistic time frame for the report, then postpone your first report for another year.

8. You have no buy-in

A sustainability report does not belong to the CSO or to any individual manager in the business. No one can publish a quality sustainability report alone. Even if the CEO decides there should be a sustainability report, it cannot happen without the buy-in and active collaboration of the senior management team and their teams.

If you find that you are just not able to generate enough support to ensure a respectable flow of content, then stop. (This does not mean everyone has to be behind it. There will always be those on a management team who question the value of reporting).

But if everyone is against, and uncooperative, hold that first report and focus your energies on helping some of them come around.

9. You want to maintain a reputation as non-transparent, non-accountable and unsustainable

Most companies would not declare this as an objective, but not reporting defaults to this. RATS (Responsibility, Transparency, Accountability, Sustainability) is the way leading companies work these days. Fact. None are perfect, but most are on the journey. Not reporting is equivalent to declaring that RATS is not important to you. If that is really the case, then do not go for that first report.

10. You have no ice cream

Reporting is not an easy task. Ice cream always makes it easier. If you have problems securing a regular supply of ice cream for the reporting team, postpone that first report until you can get it organised.

Elaine Cohen is a CSR consultant, sustainability reporter, HR professional and ice cream addict. She is also author of
CSR for HR: A Necessary Partnership for Advancing Responsible Business Practices.

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