Who's best at reporting?
The ACCA UK Awards for Sustainability Reporting has, for the past 17 years, provided a good measuring tool for businesses producing non-financial reports. Tom Idle attended this year's ceremony to find out who won and whyBack in 1991 when the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) Sustainability Reporting awards were launched, environmental accounting was peripheral.
Today, it is not "an option", but a "corporate imperative". This is according to ACCA president Gill Ball, speaking at this year's awards held at London's British Library.
And it's a belief echoed by the involvement of UK plc: 92% of FTSE100 companies are now environmental reporting, according to the latest figures and that figure continues to grow.
Ball was pleased to acknowledge the commitment of the government in this positive development, pointing a finger at Stephen Timms, the minister for competitiveness for suitably bringing CSR under the government's radar and promoting the benefits of good environmental and sustainability reporting.
Timms in turn acknowledged that it might seem odd that CSR should sit alongside competitiveness within his ministerial brief, but highlighted how "vital" corporate responsibility is for creating and enhancing business competition. The UK's top graduates are now enquiring about the CSR practice of their future potential employers - what better reason to produce strong non-financial reports than as a recruitment tool, says Timms. He also pointed out that good corporate responsibility reporting was excellent for national competitiveness. After all, the Australian James Gifford set up his office for the UN Principles for Responsible Investment here in the UK because he had "confidence in British companies", he said.
From October 1 last year, the government made it mandatory for all directors of UK-quoted companies to include their environmental and sustainability activities within their annual business review. And so, it is early days for eco-reporting. "It will be important to see how companies deal with it over the next few months," says Timms. And companies will be looking harder for examples of best practice, something encouraged by the minister as well as the organisers of the ACCA awards.
"Government in this area is pretty fragmented," admits Timms, "so we need to make more explicit best practice more available."
Something that businesses might want to take an interest in is the results of the new Prince of Wales Accounting for Sustainability project - a programme established by the Prince because of the impending "sustainability revolution hurtling down the tracks towards us" as he put it, and because "politicians don't know how to respond", as his private secretary, Sir Michael Peat put it.
The project involved around 150 organisations from both the public and private sectors who were invited to contribute to coming up with new systems in accounting and reporting on the wider social and environmental costs of organisations' actions.
The result was two practical tools: the first, a website resource offering help and advice, systems and examples of good practice. It is a free site that went live in December. Visit www.sustainabilityatwork.org.uk.
The second is a new framework, designed to make reporting clear, concise and comparable. The Connected Reporting Framework can be downloaded from the same website and Sainsbury's, Aviva, EDF Energy and HSBC have already used the framework, while BT has committed to using it during this year's reporting cycle.
"I've been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to our project," said Peat.
While attending business delegates scribbled the website address down in their notebooks, Ball began the awards ceremony proceedings. BT picked up this year's Best Report trophy, with the judges impressed by the company's decision to include its business strategy in detail - "a rare occurrence in reporting". Changing World: Sustained Values 2007 also "provides a concise summary of performance against KPIs since 2005 as well as the quantitative and qualitative targets for 2008". The way the company is trying to address climate change was also commended.
The judges were similarly enthusiastic about Unilever's Sustainable Development Report, which came a close second. The firm had disclosed information on the range of business-related measures, for example the percentage turnover spent on advertising - something the judges deemed to be an "innovative and unusual approach". Elsewhere there was praise for Vodafone's transparency, BP's assurance, SMEs Traidcraft and Shared Interest, and BHP Biliton and Centrica's online efforts.
"More companies are disclosing information on their approach to public policy and lobbying and the materiality processes in place to identify key issues on which to report," said the judges. But "the areas that need to improve in many reports are the detailed disclosures on business strategy and a credible articulation of sustainable development in terms of what it means for the business - as well as a description of the organisation within the wider social and environmental systems in which it operates".