New Bottom Line Volume 14.3.a – CSR Reporting Survey: Details

Here is some of the data behind our recent survey, CSR Reporting: Current Practices and Future Trends. (Please contact us at csr at natlogic dot com or +1-877-NatLogic for additional detail, or to discuss your company’s CSR initiatives.)

Survey Respondents
Of the 108 people who responded to our unscientific survey of CSR perceptions and practices, 28 identified their roles as “Executive Management,” 27 as EH&S Management (with little overlap between the two categories), four as Financial Management, 15 as Public affairs / Communications management, and 50 as other.

Twenty-nine companies reported revenues in excess of $1 billion (15 in excess of $10 billion), and 76 under $1 billion.

Thirty-seven respondents currently publish CSR reports; 20 have published for three or more years, three for two years, and four for one year, while 10 didn’t specify how long. Sixty percent of those who don’t currently publish CSR reports plan to publish one in the next one to three years.

(Note: Responses don’t add up to a consistent sum because not all respondents answered all questions. About 22 people responded to most of the substantive questions in the 34 question survey.)

The audience for CSR reports
Surprisingly (to us, at least) employees are ranked as the most significant audience for these reports — 86% considered them “important” or “very important” with community, other external stakeholders and company management close behind at 81%, 83% and 79%, respectively. All these groups are ranked as substantially more important than investors and investment analysts (62% and 55%), with NGOs (50%) and media (38%) the least important.

The most important reasons cited for CSR reporting were “Inform our stakeholders” (97% considered it “important” or “very important”) and “Improve internal knowledge of our own operations” (81%) were cited as the most important reasons, followed by “Provide public verification of how well we meet our vision/policy direction” (74%), with “competitive expectations in our industry” (54%) as least important.

GRI is important or very important for 60% of respondents, and of little of no importance for 21%.

Performance indicator coverage
All the respondents to this question (24 companies) report on environmental efficiency; 79% report on regulatory compliance, fines etc, while 75% report on social indicators for workplace (diversity, labor practices) and community (development, philanthropy). Over 45% — more than we would have expected — report on “ecological footprint” or “carrying capacity,” showing growing interest in those emerging measures.

When asked about potential future indicators, respondents offered a wide range of comments, including:

  • Better define the global environmental footprint of our operations
  • Social metrics aligned with quality of life
  • Assess in a clear and consistent way if we are getting better (toward sustainability), standing still, or getting worse.
  • We are tracking enough for now; too many indicators without the infrastructure to improve is pointless

Performance indicator barriers
Respondents reported four key barriers to effectively tracking performance indicators:

  • Determining metrics (The best comment: “We don’t know how to track sustainability and unsustainable practices consistently and truly.”)
  • Data availability
  • Resources for managing the process
  • Management understanding and commitment

Data management and use
Twenty-two companies commented on data management and use. More than 3/4 — 77% — use spreadsheets — something we find surprisingly common, even at large companies — while 40% use internally built specialized applications; 18% use both. Only 13% have purchased specialized software.

The most commonly stated concern was with data collection and analysis: 73% are concerned with the accuracy of the data they collect and report, more than 50% with timeliness and complexity (of data management) and nearly half with the cost of the process — not surprising given the spreadsheet dependence reported. A substantially smaller number cited ease of use (32%) and flexibility (22%), either because these aren’t problems, or — my guess—because most companies still pay relatively little attention to how CSR reports are put to use internally.

Reflecting the growing concern over the cost and frustration and data management, nearly half of respondents plan to “automate” their reports, with just over one-quarter planning to “integrate with MIS.” Several expressed concern about external software systems, citing “expense” and “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Public Comment
Fifty nine percent of respondents report that they seek public comment on their reports:

  • in developing new goals and for what gets publicly reported the following year
  • to help improve future reports
  • in determining content for future reports
  • integrate most of them into report
  • for continuous improvement

An employee-owned company said “We will take employee comments very seriously. Since we are an employee-owned company, public comments aren’t too relevant except when they come from our clients.” Another said they don’t seek public comment “but look for feedback from environmental consultants.”

Relationship to annual reports
One important trend that many people are watching is the relationship of CSR reports to “traditional” annual reports. Most companies — 82% — noted that the two reports have always been separate, two that they have always been integrated; one has switched to integrated reports, and one has switched from integrated to separate. But, surprisingly, most respondents — more than three-quarters — said they “plan to change,” and provided extensive comments discussing why and how, with some very diverse approaches:

  • We are currently integrating all forms of reporting to stakeholders – annual report, 10k, proxy, and CSR report
  • We may integrate an executive summary of the CSR report into the annual report
  • We plan to publish two separate reports but distribute them in one folder with two pockets to selected people, plus distribute our entire report to all employees via email.
  • We plan to separate from the annual report because of length
  • Our annual report and CSR report have completely different audiences.
  • We are moving these two reports into the same timing cycle, which may lead to integration in the future.
  • We hope to integrate, but it’s a tough sell

More than half of the companies responding publish both print and online reports, while more than one third publish online only, and 10% print only. In the future, two thirds of reports will be delivered both in print and online, one third online only; the days of print only reports are over.

“Online” means different things to different people, however. Nearly half provide static web sites (one third of which those provide downloads). Only 21% describe their sites as “interactive,” (which seems mostly mean “something to download”), but none of these provide interactive report generators. In all, 78% provide PDF downloads (40% in conjunction with static pages, 13% in conjunction with “interactive” pages.)

Length and timing
Ten percent of respondents plan to produce longer reports in the future; 27% plan shorter reports. 64% publish annually, 27% publish twice a year, and 10% publish quarterly; 18% plan to publish more frequently; none plan to publish less frequently.

External resources
Half of the respondents use external firms for design, one quarter for writing; one quarter produce their reports entirely in house. Surprisingly, only five of our respondents — fewer than one-fifth — reported using third party verification.