Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Cherry-picking reports are eroding credibility

December 2009

Company reporting on human rights tends to gloss over tricky subjects and paint an unbalanced and selective picture of corporate efforts in the field.

That’s the conclusion of a new study commissioned by the Global Reporting Initiative, which says companies continue to be guilty of ‘silence on known controversies, superficial reporting... and lack of balance’.

In particular the study concludes that many CSR reports continue to report on human rights issues ‘mainly (or, in some cases, only) in a positive light’. This means that important information is habitually missing and that there are ‘substantial gaps in [companies’] overall level of disclosure and transparency’.

Companies typically ignore human rights controversies in which they are involved, and rarely take the opportunity to present a full picture of what is happening. Often they also fail even to mention human rights related lawsuits that have been taken out against them.

Given that the audience for CSR reports includes human rights advocacy groups and other NGOs that are usually aware of the negative news surrounding a company’s record, such circumspection therefore brings a report’s credibility into question.

Among companies named in a ‘room for improvement’ section on such matters are BP and the French pharmaceuticals company Roche, who are criticized for their silence on well-known human rights allegations that have been levelled against them.

Roche fails in its latest report to deal with continuing controversy over organ transplants allegedly taken from executed prisoners in China, while BP mentions ‘only very briefly’ claims that its Brazilian ethanol refinery uses forced labour.

Other companies, such as Abbott Laboratories and Air France, are given as examples of having ‘superficial or incomplete’ reporting. The energy group Hydro-Quebec is criticised for discussing its relations with aboriginal communities with reference only to ‘isolated data, such as the amount the company paid to Aboriginal organizations, companies and independent workers, without providing a context or discussion of what the numbers mean’.

However, the report, based on a review of 57 sustainability reports from a range of sectors published this year, concedes that ‘human rights reporting has gone through a period of some progress in recent years’.

It highlights improvements in reporting on stakeholder inclusion, due diligence, and in monitoring and verification.

The paper recommends that companies build on achievements in these areas, but should review existing assumptions about human rights reporting – including whether they should include human rights topics throughout their reports rather than in a separate section.

It also urges more human rights reporting outside of formal sustainability reports, via mediums such as blogs and YouTube. Walt Disney and Newmont Mining are praised for issuing one-off, free-standing printed reports on their human rights efforts that were outside of the normal CSR reporting cycle.

see editorial, p12

Global Reporting Initiative | Global | Reporting

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