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guest column: the practice of social and environmental reporting

November 2000

A combined report cannot measure all social and environmental impacts. The most important thing is for companies to make a start, says Jon Woodhead

As a developer and verifier of social and environmental reports, I find it hard to believe that corporate environmental reporting evolved with such scant regard to the views of stakeholders. Many of the basic tools used in environmental management, such as the ISO14001 standard, still do not require a company to communicate its actual environmental performance to interested parties outside the company. The implication is that ‘the technical experts know best’. The flow of information in environmental reports is often one-way which, given the investment involved, is an opportunity lost.

Contrast this technocentric approach with that of the social accountants, who concentrate on seeking the views of interested parties of all types both inside and outside the company. However, by focusing on the process of stakeholder dialogue, social accountants can sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture.

The challenge for anyone producing a combined social and environmental report is to balance these two approaches.

Linking a company’s environmental and social goals to its core business drivers is key to realising the benefits of combined reporting. Whilst there is broad agreement about how to measure financial performance, there is only some agreement about how best to measure environmental performance, and even less for social performance. This new area of accounting is at an early stage of development. In my experience, there aren’t any right or wrong answers. Those that make a start, experiment a little, and accept that it is not possible to measure everything, will be the first to reap the rewards that this new information will provide.

Getting the right team together to develop the report is essential. Combined reporting requires integrated thinking from a broad range of professionals. The traditional departmental structure of ‘environment’, ‘health and safety’ and ‘community affairs’ can hamper an innovative approach. The new British Airways Sustainable Development Unit is one example of an organization manoeuvring itself to be in the best position to report against social and environmental goals, with the active support of the highest levels within the company.

It takes maturity to lead a company in a direction where the immediate benefits are uncertain. Social and environmental reporting is a young discipline and still has a ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach. It can help to drive real change, both within companies and in the wider world.

Jon Woodhead is a director of csr network ltd., a consultancy that verified United Utilities’ first social and environmental report this year.




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