White lies do not green companies make
In the past month I have received press releases highlighting one companys ambition to cut its 122 million tonne carbon footprint, anothers success in slashing 2.5 million tonnes from its green bottom line and one that has zero transport emissions thanks to a policy of providing all staff with a unicycle. Okay, so its obvious that I made that last one up, but what about the others? In fact, all three are made up but only the last one by me the other two made it into official CSR reports.Some businesses may well lay claim to such progress, but others seem to be trying their luck with some rather dodgy claims, and some even dodgier statistics. Researchers at the University of Leeds and Euromed Management School poured over 4,000 CSR reports, rankings and surveys and found the quality of environmental data to be appalling.
Boffins at the two institutes spent 22 hours a day (probably) in dark rooms pouring over the reports, just in case there was a story for The Guardian. And there was. In fact, there were dozens of them. BT, for instance, claimed its Irish and Dutch employees didnt travel at all in 2007 (were they waiting at home in case the engineer turned up to fix their broadband?). Italian energy company ENEL suggested its carbon emissions were in the region of 122m tonnes four times that of the entire planet, while E.ON went the other way and made an entire power plant disappear, along with a couple of million tonnes of CO2.
Those companies that were found out failed to realise that CSR isnt some nice little brochure to send around to the industry once in a while along with a bag to place your old clothes in. To find this level of inaccuracy in a financial report would be a scandal, but in sustainability reporting it appears to be common practice. The question begs: do stakeholders even bother to read the reports?
Thankfully, some do, like Dr Barkemeyer, lecturer in CSR at the University of Leeds, and his team. NGOs do a great job of keeping some companies in check, but they also have to be careful, as do governments, about the claims they make. On a weekly basis, there are billions of pounds to be saved from turning off the lights or recycling, which makes me wonder if we are in the midst of a decade of over-exuberant green claims ? What is next, I wonder? Cutting waste can make you more money than selling oil; turn the heating down a degree and you could save 34 Maldivians a year by 2020; cycle to work and you might get the chance to cut up Boris Johnson.
Granted, these may all be a little BT in terms of their accuracy, but we need to be careful. Big bold targets are not a new phenomenon, but were now reaching a stage where these will be heavily scrutinised as some of the target deadlines appear on the horizon. That means you have to be sure youre doing what your CSR report says on the tin. With many of the big grocers and food manufacturers having ambitious targets in place for 2020 (see page 16), theres less than a decade to ensure that aspirations are successfully translated into performance.