Thursday, November 14, 2019

A Texas-twist on CSR with Jennifer Evans of the CKP Group

Jennifer Evans
This week, I connected with Jennifer Evans, a principle at the CKP group, a woman-owned integrated communications firm in Houston – which, by the way, is a city I’m eager to visit given that everyone I speak with is so passionate about what a wonderful place it is! 

As for Jenn, she has spent 25 years as a marketing and communications professional, during which time she has witnessed the shift in corporate social responsibility (CSR) from a “nice to have” to a “must have.” She also believes that Houstonians place a particular emphasis on community investment, which has been borne out by the number of Houston-based businesses consistently ranked on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual Charity Navigator index

She shares her insights here. Enjoy!

MK: How do you define CSR?

JE: At CKP, we define Corporate Social Responsibility as "an entity’s responsibility to operate in an ethical and sustainable way and be responsive to its community impact—whether the impact or potential impact be environmental, social or economic.” This is our collective leadership team worldview and it permeates every aspect of our business.

MK: How have you seen CSR change over the past two decades?

JE: Twenty years ago, CSR was a trendy name for everything from corporate philanthropy to remediation. Communications departments routinely assigned junior level staff to manage gala budgets and write checks for random causes. On the other side of the building—or even the globe—Health, Safety and Environment leads were beginning to grapple with public reporting and measurement. Ten years ago, we saw the beginning integration of multiple disciplines forming together in companies, mostly still housed in Communications or Human Resources, such as CSR for HSE, Strategic Philanthropy, Community Engagement, Diversity & Inclusion and others.

Today, smart companies have tenured professionals who lead all or most of these functions under one stand-alone umbrella and basically in service to the company and its many departments. Sure, there have always been global brands that were pacesetters for these changes, but regulations and public scrutiny have changed the rules of engagement.

MK: Who is driving the push for greater focus on social and environmental performance amongst your clients?

JE: In our work with clients, particularly those in heavily regulated industries like energy and manufacturing, we see priority and focus coming from all aspects of the internal organization. Mitigation and remediation certainly put pressure on businesses and more so in industries such as energy, health and bio-tech.

What we see in our brand management role with clients in multiple markets is a voracious appetite in the court of public opinion—which now plays in social media—for disclosure and pro-active communications. Consumers and customers in general—whether B2B or B2C—are going to be the loudest group and will ask questions sooner or later. Issues management strategy can help in managing activist groups. But if your potential or existing clients challenge you, be prepared to lose them to other brands if they don’t like what you say. That’s not to say that employees and investors don’t play key roles in managing your risks and being responsible. But when you remove or reduce the power of financial gain to win favor, we are all consumers and we vote with our feet.

Footnote: Gen Z, our youngest marketplace-viable generation, is unbelievably astute, and I expect their demands and expectations of accountability to have a stronger impact than Millennials. Social and political demographers continue to forecast that this next generation will have the rage of Gen Y, the tenacity of Gen X and the loyalty (and lack of forgiveness) of the Boomers. Their role as consumers will overshadow the rest. And their advocacy will make or break brands. Best be prepared.

MK: What advice do you have for creating successful partnerships?

JE: Regardless of whether you work for a global business or a single stand-alone shop, you should collaborate with partners that are open and willing to support you. I often see businesses make social investments that don't align with one or more of these groups' passions and engagement. This usually results in a one-time engagement and a failed relationship.

We recommend first doing the internal work to identify the values you want to promote, the social impact you may have and where, and the categories of nonprofits and public/private groups that make sense. Once you've got that strategy in place, it's much easier to research and identify potential partners.

Treat it like hiring an employee. Get to know each other and transparently discuss your challenges and concerns. Then, the magic happens. Real, vibrant partnerships develop and they are much bigger and better than a cookie cutter sponsorship package that a random organization asks you to fund.

MK: What is your advice for brands and businesses in industries that aren't heavily regulated? What's the ROI in being bold about your business position on CSR for such companies?

JE: CKP was founded in Houston, Texas, which consistently ranks at the top of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual Charity Navigator index. I have lived in several large and small communities, and I’ve not seen the attention to which people doing business in Houston pay to how others invest in the community.

We work with large global brands and small start-ups, and the single thing all businesses have in common is the need for third-party endorsements. Whether a business produces cookies, renewable energy, marketing and public relations services (like CKP) or something else, savvy business leaders know that your close rate is higher and reputation is more protected when others with strong brand reputation back you. Our team at CKP counsels many clients in their sponsorship, CSR and partnership negotiations and communications.

In any household or business, we must budget to protect, care for and to give to the things that matter to us. Defining what matters early on and having it resonate with internal and external stakeholders is just good business. We’ve got some excellent case studies at CKP and the consumer marketplace at large too—from small emerging industry, locally owned, as well as reputation-challenged large businesses—that show how real partnerships and social investments benefit everyone.

Regulations are present in all industries, and stakeholders are a given no matter what kind of business you run. We frequently hear from clients that wish to begin organizing their reporting and messaging, in anticipation of public exposure and changing politics. Preparedness is key. Don’t wait to be called out to communicate your community impacts.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Melissa Orozco: Championing Social and Environmental Progress through Impact Relations

Melissa Orozco
It’s not every day you meet someone who turns away 80 percent of business that lands on her desk. But that is just what Melissa Orozco, founder of Vancouver-based Yulu Public Relations, does to ensure she stays true to her values and those of her company. Started in 2011, Yulu champions socially innovative organizations that are making a positive social and environmental impact.
Melissa is also a driving force behind the emerging field of Impact Relations, which uses communications strategies, messaging, campaigns and storytelling to influence positive social and environmental impact. As she says, no spin, just authentic and strategic communications.
Melissa talks more about Impact Relations and who is doing it well here in my latest blog.
MK: First of all, can you explain why you called your firm Yulu? Is there a meaning behind this?
MO: Contrary to popular belief, Yulu is not an acronym. Yulu has Chinese origins, meaning “the journey of words.”
MK: You are very involved in the Impact Relations field. Can you share what this is and how you got involved?
MO: Yulu’s roots were with nonprofits and social enterprises, including the Vancouver Farmers Market and Fuck Cancer, from the start. While we recognized the public’s growing hunger to support brands that were built on transparency, positivity, solutions and authenticity, it was still a time when terms like “social impact” and “social innovation” were considered aspirational and bad for the bottom line. In 2014, this inspiration and hunger began to take on the undeniable shape of a new industry, a new way of doing PR. That was when we developed Impact Relations. One year later, we committed to a portfolio of 100 percent cause-based clients –- the same year we became the first PR agency in Canada to become a certified B Corporation and recognized by PR Daily as North America's Top PR Agency for Corporate Social Responsibility.
MK: As a communications professional, you help clients raise awareness of their positive impacts on society and the environment. However, there is always the risk of green washing, blue washing, etc. What is your approach and counsel when you suspect this may be happening with a client?
MO: Yulu has a strict client-vetting process, which results in us turning away about 80 percent of the new business opportunities that come in our door. One of the ways we establish authenticity from brands and companies that come to us to build a purpose-lead strategy is by ensuring we have access and complete buy-in from the leadership team. It is also important that while building out our strategy, we allow time for implementation throughout the company so that the strategy is not positioned or executed as a standalone PR initiative. Our process always begins with a deep-dive assessment where we explore how the company is already creating a positive impact within the communities that they serve. We follow this process by reviewing the issues that are impacting their target audience groups to determine how the brand or organization can add the greatest value and impact.
MK: Have you seen a shift or evolution in how your clients are approaching CSR or sustainability in recent few years? 
MO: Consumer demand and customer behavior have absolutely influenced the organizational brand purpose movement. Companies are increasingly seeing that having an authentic social purpose and positive impact is not only a “nice to have” but it's a “need to have,” in order for them to stay relevant, competitive and engaging with their customers. You can find many examples of this on the Impact Relations website here.
MK: Do you notice a difference in approach by sector?
MO: Brands are implementing social and environmental strategies around the globe in response to the climate crisis that is affecting all nations and communities. When it comes to social justice issues that brands are tackling, strategies will vary significantly depending on the issues that are impacting the communities around them. For instance, in the U.S. you will see brands championing issues such as prison reform, gender equality, and racial justices, while other markets such as Canada may have a heavy focus on issues like indigenous rights and immigration reform. Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t cross-over of support from brands looking to solve issues that are universal in scope. 
MK: Are companies taking a different approach given the particular urgency in addressing ESG issues?
MO: Climate change is at the top of the agenda for many organizations, more than ever. Through the UN’s Global Compact initiative, brands are rallying and collaborating to address climate action-related SDGs.
If there’s ever been a time to use our voice and communications to inspire and move people to action, it’s now. The good news is there is a groundswell of businesses using their expertise, resources and influence to positively impact social and environmental change. Realizing we can’t rely solely on government, nonprofits and NGOs to solve all of the issues impacting society and the environment, corporations are stepping up to play a critical role in building a more prosperous and regenerative economy. Global brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Tesla and Patagonia are among the thousands of companies placing “social” at the forefront of their enterprise – putting purpose alongside, or even ahead of, profit. Brands are collaborating with competitors more than ever for collective action to address global issues and improve industry standards. It’s no longer about philanthropy; it’s about creating systemic and meaningful change. 
In terms of CR, what should corporate leaders do more of? 
 Lead with their values and be comfortable advocating for what’s right, not just what’s going to drive sales or satisfy investors.
\What should they do less of?
Don't wait on advocating for an important issue until other brands are leading the way – pave the way!
What CR trend will we continue to see more of in 2020?
Climate action and collective action. 
What are two to three companies leading the way in integrating purpose with corporate strategy?
Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher – all B Corps!
Name a corporate leader you admire. 
Ben & Jerry's chief executive officer, Matthew McCarthy

Thursday, October 31, 2019

3BL Forum Brands Taking Stands Did Not Disappoint to Inspire

I attended this week’s 3BL Forum themed Brands Taking Stands – What’s Next and heard from more than 90 corporate responsibility professionals and NGO experts over two amazing days.
Given this is the height of conference season and we can’t all be everywhere, I wanted to share a few of the learnings and comments that I found particularly insightful. Enjoy!
Does it ever feel like you are being pressured to  sign on to every petition and join in every cause? Well Eileen Boone, EVP of Corporate Social Responsibility, CVS Health, thinks differently. She shared with attendees her perspective: “Just because it’s the issue of the day doesn’t mean you have to jump in…If you can’t bring resources to the issue , don’t do it. People will see it’s not authenticate.“
Whoever said CSR was easy? “Being in the CSR space, is a challenge. Every side of every issue is going to get more sophisticated going forward,” said Tim McClimon, President, American Express Foundation and SVP, American Express.
Timberland shared details of its recently launched Nature Needs Heroes campaign which seeks to inspire a greening movement among consumers. What’s different about the campaign is that it involves consumers. “The campaign is a call-to-action to engage people in small, everyday actions that make a difference and help create a greener world,” Atlanta McIlwraith, Senior Manager of Community Engagement and Communication, Timberland, shared. "The small actions add up, and as many people do small actions, you get a movement—and it is movements that change the world."
Is it possible for a perfume to solve the world’s greatest challenges? According to Kip Cleverley, Vice President of Global Sustainability at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), it is. Speaking during the first day of 3BL Forum, Cleverley shared his company’s pursuit to focus not simply on doing less bad – for example, by reducing water use, something they have done – but by doing more good.  And what’s really cool is he’s working with actress and environmentalist Michele Pfeiffer to do it. Curious? Read more in my Triple Pundit coverage.
Perhaps my favorite speaker of the Forum – and not just because he gave out free ice cream to all attendees, although that certainly helped – was Matthew McCarthy, CEO of the iconic brand Ben & Jerry’s, who said “If your company is not doing something to deal with a global issue it is probably dead.” 
While I am all for plant-based diets, I was interested to hear from Stewart Leeth, VP of Regulatory Affairs and Chief Sustainability Officer at Smithfield Foods, that they are working with local farms in their supply chain to convert manure into biogas to create a second revenue source for struggling U.S. farmers.
Amanda Gardiner, Director of Social Responsibility at Verizon, announced that the company is working on a new CSR framework that will be based on “radical transparency” and partnerships and will include new targets. Not surprising given the refreshing focus on CSR by their new CEO Hans Vestberg. Watch out for an announcement  next year.
According to the new 2019 Porter Novelli/Cone Gen Z Purpose Study shared at the Forum, Gen Zers believe they are the key to pushing forward on the world’s top social and environmental issues, from climate change to gun control. And they are  willing to roll up their sleeves and participate. Around three-quarters stand ready to support companies that care in a variety of ways, including: sharing their positive opinion about a company doing good (85 percent), buying a product with a social or environmental benefit (84 percent) and learning what they can do to make a difference (also 84 percent). Check out my article on Triple Pundit for more details
Kimberly Davis, EVP, Social Impact at the National Hockey League, shared how the League is helping local ice rink operators and owners invest in new sustainable, energy efficient technologies so they can stay open. And the NHL is offering  tips on how fans can be more sustainable in their lives. Very cool.
And last but not least, I loved a quote from Mona Amodeo, Author of Beyond Sizzle: The Next Evolution of Branding, who said she likes to think of the shift in focus from “looking at a company’s environmental footprint – measuring negative impacts -- to focusing on their environmental handprint – measuring positive impacts.”

Monday, October 21, 2019

From the Public to the Private Sector: Jane Madden Brings a New Vision to Corporate Responsibility

Jane Madden 
It’s always interesting, I think, to speak with someone involved in corporate responsibility who did not start off in the corporate sector. Often they bring a different perspective to the conversation and expertise to their work. That was certainly the case when I spoke recently with Jane Madden, Managing Partner of Global Sustainability and Social Impact at Finn Partners.

Jane is a former World Bank staffer and NGO board member with 25 years of experience in 30 countries. From her office in Chicago, Jane talked with me about how her past work has influenced her, the role of business in addressing global issues, and trends that she believes are here to stay.

MK: You worked for nearly 12 years at the World Bank before jumping into the corporate world. How did that shape your vision of business in society and lead you on this path?

JM: My work at the World Bank not only shaped my view but it drove my decision to move from the public to the corporate sector. I experienced first hand how companies are crucial to economic development by providing jobs and services. But I also saw that businesses weren’t always working in the best interest of society — some where not providing health services to employees, some were not taking care of workers on the front line [eg, in high-risk industries such as mining]. Moreover, this behavior was not in the best interest of the companies themselves. It dawned on me that there was much to be done to help companies and using the power of the private sector to drive positive economic, social and environmental results. Integrating sustainability into the business model and bottom line would ensure that it would be long-lasting and not a collection of one-off projects. So the evolution from advising governments on emerging ESG issues to advising companies has actually been very linear.

MK: As a communications professional, you help clients raise awareness of their positive impacts. But, there is always the risk of green washing, blue washing, etc. What is your approach when you suspect this may be happening?

JM: We see green, blue, pink, SDG [Sustainable Development Goals] washing … a lot comes out of good intentions. But for this [corporate responsibility] to work, it has to be integrated into the business. My approach is always to, first, talk to the client and ask for the data — It’s all about data. Clients need to support their ESG or SDG claims with performance numbers. I ask them “Do you have goals? How does this program help achieve those goals?” The second part, I always counsel clients to be honest and modest when making their claims. That includes being transparent and talking about challenges when they don’t make their goals. If you didn’t [make your goal], you should say why you didn’t, what happened, and what you are doing to change — just like when a company doesn’t make its financial goals, it needs to be the same approach. You actually get a lot of credit when you talk about challenges — it ultimately builds trust.

MK: Have you seen an evolution in how clients are approaching CSR?

JM: Ten years ago, clients said to us “We do all these great things but we don’t get any credit.” We saw a lot of cause marketing and one-off corporate giving and community programs that were not integrated into the business. Now, clients are saying they need to develop a strategy because their board of directors, CEO, or investors are asking for this. It’s not only about the communications, but about integrating ESG performance into their business — this has been a huge shift. 

We are also seeing more mainstream investors looking at sustainability. If you look at materiality analyses, philanthropy is a much lower priority than say cybersecurity, climate change and resiliency and attracting and retaining the best talent. There remains an expectation of community engagement and giving, but it’s not critical to the core business. We’re seeing more focus on and interest in ESG strategies that are integrated into the business and operations. For corporate responsibility to get results, it needs to achieve business goals by mitigating risk and maximizing opportunity.

MK: What are effective ways for companies to bring the voice of stakeholders into their businesses? Why is it so important?

JM: It depends, of course, on the company, but I always say engage with your stakeholders early and often to understand the needs of a particular group. NGO’s will have different questions, demands, and concerns than employees, investors, unions or  regulators. Companies need to map their stakeholders and develop an engagement calendar to share information and to listen. You learn so much by listening. Engagement has to be a two-way street — it’s not just sending out email alerts. Of course, you can’t meet with everyone, but by prioritizing your stakeholders and their issues, you can develop your strategy. It’s also important to engage with your critics. You may not like what you hear, but you need to hear it.

MK: Let’s turn to the environment. What corporate actions stand out? What more is needed?

JM: Corporations —not all, but many -- are making changes and certainly Fortune 500 companies were a strong force behind the Paris Accord. They saw it as beneficial to their business. After President Trump was elected, we saw dozens of CEOs write to him urging him to stay in. These companies are not going back on their commitments. They want a level playing field and more companies to make climate commitments.

But companies need to do more. Policies and commitments are the first step. Then there must be action — and it must be more than carbon credits and planting trees. It has to be integrating environmental goals into business strategy. We are seeing companies taking steps to reduce their carbon emissions and also produce products with lower environmental impacts — low-carbon products, or products that use less water. And we also see real leaders such as Microsoft, which has put a price on carbon, and Adidas, which has been practicing environmental accounting for years.

Quick-fire Round:
  • Name an industry that needs to do more in ESG: Extractives
  • What should leaders do more of? Integrate ESG performance into their business.
  • What should they do less of? Take stands on issues not central to their core business.
  • What trend will continue in 2020? Interest from mainstream investors in ESG.

Friday, October 11, 2019

On International Day of the Girl, Let's Focus on Future Progress

If there is one thing I have learned from my more than two decades in the social impact and global development field, women and girls are one of the most powerful forces of change.
This was demonstrated to me time and again during my travels, from the community health worker in rural Ethiopia educating other women on the benefits to them and their children of family planning, to young mothers in India demanding that community leaders invest in sustainable clean water stations.
As Melinda Gates says, empowered women transform societies.
“From high rates of education, employment and economic growth to low rates of teen births, domestic violence, and crime – the inclusion and elevation of women correlate with the signs of a healthy society. Women’s rights and society’s health and wealth rise together,” she writes in her recent book, The Moment of Lift.
Largest Gathering of Women and Girls in Africa
Next June, more than 1,500 people will gather in Durban, South Africa, for the Women & Girls Africa Summit 2020. I am privileged to be part of the Summit Advisory Committee, which is helping conference organizers develop a robust program round five key tracks: Health, Economic Empowerment, Education, Gender-related Policy and Law, and Technology for Empowerment.
With attendees expected from more than 75 countries, the Summit portends to be the largest gathering of women and girls in Africa. A roster of internationally recognized speakers will participate in thought-provoking debates, TEDx-like talks and workshop sessions.
I am excited to be among the attendees, seeing old and meeting new friends and colleagues, learning from the experiences of others, and lending my voice to help galvanize action toward gender parity, inclusion and empowerment.
More progress is needed….
Although many African countries, notably Rwanda, South Africa, Burundi and Namibia, have achieved important milestones towards gender parity across education, health, economic and political systems, there remains much to be done.
Every day across the expansive continent, women strive to develop and maintain sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their families. They run small businesses, secure microloans to start new businesses, and engage in all types of activities to put food on their tables, send their children to school, and pay for healthcare. They also serve in Board rooms, lead governments, and represent their countries on the world stage.
As Africa faces the next decade, full of economic potential and promise, the role of African women will become even more crucial to achieve robust economic growth and drive access to universal health and education for people across the continent.
Empowering African women in the economy and closing gender gaps in the world of work are also key to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example:
  • Research shows that women’s economic equality is good for business. Companies greatly benefit from increasing employment and leadership opportunities for women, which is shown to increase organizational effectiveness and growth.
  • Healthier women contribute to better-educated and more productive societies.
  • Farms run by educated women show increases in yields up to 22 percent.
  • If 10 percent more adolescent girls attend school, a country’s GDP increases by an average of 3 percent.
  • Ensuring women’s control over their own fertility can boost the pace of economic growth and development.
Lend your voice to the discussion
The Women & Girls Africa Summit 2020 will be an unprecedented opportunity to advance key objectives vital for the next decade. Objectives critical not only to women, but to businesses, governments and civil society organizations.
If you or your organization works or invests in Africa, I urge you to be part of next year’s Summit as an attendee, speaker or sponsor. For more information, visit or follow updates on twitter at @wagsafrica 
Once again, I’ll turn to Melinda Gates for the final word: “If you want to lift up humanity, empower women. It is the most comprehensive, pervasive, high-leverage investment you can make in human beings.”

Friday, October 4, 2019

“Responsible” Business Has Turned Out to be as Boring as it Sounds – It’s Time for a Reset

Giles Gibbons
Giles Gibbons, CEO and Founder, of London-based Good Business doesn’t mince words. He started the organization in 1996, back when he was working for Saatchi and Saatchi. Along with co-founder Steve Hilton, he saw the power of brands to change the world for the better.

His work with Good Business has covered a wide range of areas -- from a behavior change smoking campaign in Botswana, a large-scale consumer research project in Europe to understand parents’ attitudes to healthy living, to a social brand marketing campaign to protect Arctic habitats.

But 20 years on, he is concerned that progress has not come far enough. Below, we discuss his frustrations, the reason for urgency, and his call to action for today’s business leaders. 

MK: You’ve been working in the “sustainability movement” for more than 20 years. What has been achieved? 

GG: Our honest answer right now is nowhere near enough. Yes, things have changed. No longer are we forced to make “the business case” for putting sustainability on the agenda ad infinitum. And that’s because it is on the agenda, and firmly so. 

Nearly every big company worth its salt understands what its main environmental and social impacts are and is actively managing them. They have CR functions and teams, which are integrated into the business (with varying degrees of success) and which have a seat on the Board. And a great many of them have articulated a purpose for their business that builds from the value it brings to the world. They have ambitions, and targets and publish progress against them. They engage with their stakeholders. They talk about their values, and many really mean it when they talk about how much all this means to them and how much they care.

But the sense of progress is in many ways a mirage. And any complacency or sense of self-congratulation would most definitely be mis-placed. Because none of what’s been done so far has created anything like the change we need. 

 MK: You are saying that business has not gone far enough driving the sustainability agenda? 

GG: Business, when all is said and done, is not doing enough to match the change that is needed. The big businesses that have engaged have been delivering slow and steady incremental change when what we need is a thunderbolt of transformation. “Responsible” business has turned out to be as boring as it sounds. It doesn’t have to be.  The opportunity for companies big or small to make transformational change and benefit hugely from their actions is a proven case.  We need to inspire every business to take up this challenge.  What is exciting is the new millennial start-ups have much of this thinking baked into the way they do business.  Watch out big business! The challenger brands are coming to get you.

MK: What’s driving the current sense of urgency? 

GG: There is the severity and scale of the problems we face. We can’t keep saying we’ve got 20 years to save the world because the time will run out. From the carbon zero commitment to the SDG deadline, horizons for delivery are drawing ever closer, not so the action they demand.

There’s also a massive new wave of will. For the first time in history, consumers and culture are in the lead on all this, demanding action and change.

Business is no longer in control of where it sits on the sustainability ambition slider, or even which impacts it should lead on. Take plastic. Culture has catapulted it onto everyone’s agenda. Whatever the sector, whatever your business, you need to address it. And it’s not just plastic. We’re seeing a whole new wave of these “horizontals” -- issues that spring from the ground and which every business, in every sector needs to sit up and act on. Diversity. Health. Climate. When it comes to the horizontals there is nowhere to hide.

MK: Where does this leave big, established businesses, the ones which haven’t yet demonstrated they can move in tune with the new times? 

GG: Well they are actually in a very good place to make this work. The fundamentals are in place. As we said at the beginning, most companies are already doing the groundwork. They are managing their core issues and impacts. And this is more important than ever. For one thing it means that they will be prepared for the horizontals that will continue to come. Even if they haven’t made them a priority, they will be on the radar.  And for another, it means that they can be the grown up – standing in contrast to the newcomers, who have oriented themselves around one issue – because they have everything covered. Their basic responsibility approach is comprehensive and coherent, and they’ve dealt with some of the complex issues that simply take time to get in order.

What they need to do – and do with determination and urgency – is to step up to the new challenges of our times. Build from the foundations they have built and launch into real leadership. No longer is there time to be cautious. The winners will be the ones that go for it. That fix their sights on their role in a more progressive capitalist system that delivers, and which put it all over the front door. You almost can’t be too strong or go too far because if you don’t someone else well.  The real danger is bland action that disappears without trace.

MK: What is your advice looking forward? 

GG: So, let’s draw a mark in the sustainability sand. We’re campaigning for January 2020 to act as a moment in time. For us to accept we’re at Ground Zero. 

We think businesses should take this moment and use it as a catalyst for change on a totally new scale. Let’s start by rebasing sustainability targets to a January 2020 start point. Demonstrate acceptance that what has gone before isn’t anywhere near enough and create a very real and practical reset. And let’s also make sure that we move forward with a holistic view of sustainability and start applying the same rigor that science-based targets brought to environmental impacts to social ones – the SDGs provide as good a benchmark of success as the Paris Agreement on carbon does. 
Our own personal commitment is to use every opportunity we have to help businesses create the change we need. To go further and faster, to raise their ambitions, and think about where January 2020’s new start will take them. The next decade is all about action. 

And the best news is that is not too late, yet. A more positive future for capitalism and businesses really is within our grasp – in a way it never has been before. There is a fierce urgency to now. We want to make the most of it.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

ESG Reporting Trends and New Frameworks through the Eyes of an Expert: A Conversation with Wesley Gee

Wesley Ge
I had a chance earlier this month to chat with Wesley Gee, who leads sustainability advisory services at Toronto-based The Works Design Communications and supports corporate/sustainability reporting for clients in sectors including energy, mining, financial services, consumer goods and retail. Wesley also contributed to the development of the GRI and SASB standards and is a judge for CPA Canada’s Corporate Reporting Awards.  

In our conversation, Wesley shares his perspective on sustainability and integrated reporting after more than 15 years helping companies identify and present their purpose, priorities and performance.

MK: How do you counsel clients on integrating new reporting frameworks – such as the TCFD and SDGs – into their reporting, particularly if they already align with the GRI?

WG: We’re excited to see such a range of frameworks and standards. Contrary to common belief, I think they’re actually improving consistency and quality –- from climate risk and financial disclosures (e.g., SASB, TCFD) to sustainability and purpose-driven reporting (e.g., SDGs, GRI). The GRI isn’t the only act in town, so it isn’t always easy to choose the perfect mix of frameworks, especially when companies have different needs to meet.

When advising clients, we first try to understand -- and anticipate -- their stakeholders’ wants and needs, and then discuss what they should really be trying to achieve in terms of their strategy, governance, metrics and communications, including reporting.

We often help companies assess their priorities beyond what may be considered financially material. Doing so can offer a great opportunity to scan the field, and a company’s risk registry, and gain both objective measures and expert insights from its stakeholders that can strengthen the company’s strategy – and improve how it contextualizes important issues, by showing both sides of the story.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach because most analysts still don’t really know what they want, so we recommend that companies report on a combination of two or three frameworks. But when sharing the data, don’t forget the story. Context matters.

MK: What issues do the report issuers you are working with struggle with the most? What are their greatest concerns?

WG: Because of a lack of consolidation across frameworks (and a somewhat agnostic attitude from the Street), companies functioning with one or two practitioners need to make tough choices. Do you continue to complete a 130-page CDP survey or just address the TCFD recommendations? Do you continue following the GRI Standards or streamline your process to report only to the SASB Standards? Many of us know that these frameworks were all developed with unique and valid purposes (e.g., the SASB for financial reporting and the GRI for sustainability reporting), but internal teams often don’t have the time – or inclination – to address all of them.

Additionally, companies are really trying to gain trust and support from their stakeholders and are struggling to find the right mix of tactics to inform, engage and inspire them. While PDF reports and data tables are a necessity, more companies are investing in mainstream marketing, digital campaigns and communications strategies. These efforts are strengthening their presence as purpose-driven brands, and encouraging interaction through open innovation, online forums, engaging videos and gamification. We’re bringing sustainability to the masses.

Lastly, in an age when the stakeholder is the new shareholder, many companies are having an identity crisis. The other day, I read one company’s vision: to become a mid-tier gold producer. And it was nothing short of depressing. How can an employee, a community member or shareholder buy into that? On the other hand, I see “purpose” being used superficially, sometimes inflating a company’s role in, or perceived benefit to, society. The SDGs seem to be helping companies connect to something bigger than themselves and are inspiring a level of introspection that is helping some companies to genuinely consider, and later share, their purpose.

MK: What are one or two things that you wish all reporting organizations would stop doing? Do more of?

WG: I won’t make any friends by saying this but stop complaining and stop trying to keep up with the Joneses. There’s a hell of a lot of work that needs to be done at all organizations to get them into a space where they are fit for the future.

The present is the past, so you can gain perspective by continuing to engage with those who you trust (which, in our emerging space, may include those who you have not yet met, based in other parts of the world), who can help you to understand the broader landscape, challenge hypotheses and refine your strategic plan – including your reporting choices.

When you think you’ve figured it all out, you’ve lost perspective.

MK: Are you seeing, through reports, greater evidence that companies are integrating CR/ESG into their business strategies – through risk management, new products and services that address environmental/social challenges, etc.?

WG: More companies are developing integrated reports that, in many cases, include details on how they create value. They highlight the focus areas where they aim to make wider social impacts, and the outcomes of investments in people, assets, relationships and other capitals.

Since it can take companies up to two or three years of internal alignment to develop their first integrated report, it’s fair to assume that many of them are adapting their strategy to embed a wider range of environmental, social and governance factors into their financial disclosures.

But many companies are still at “stage one” (i.e., admitting there is a problem). After doing this, they still often need to set meaningful long-term targets in a way that will inspire ideas and actions from a critical mass of ambitious and talented people. This is what is required to deliver the change that is needed for a restorative future. So, we have a long way to go before we can feel good about ourselves.

MK: What shifts have you witnessed in CR reporting over the past five years, including any geographical or sector differences?

WG: I’ve been involved in reporting for about 15 years. During this time, I’ve seen shifts from storytelling-heavy documents to data-only reports that lack context. More recently, I’ve noticed that a lot of reporting has started to offer smart functionality enabling companies to develop a better experience for multiple users at once.

Today we’re seeing (and supporting) a reporting approach that is more intentional. We’re working in a more coordinated way with corporate communications, investor relations, human resources and sustainability leads (and their partners) to plan and deliver a complete solution. We believe that good reporting acknowledges expectations and executes on a plan that is far more customized. The formats we choose, those who we engage with (and how) and the analytics we assemble enable us to be nimbler and more objective. It helps us all have a little more fun to thoughtfully and objectively adapt to this changing space.

MK: What are your predictions for the future of ESG reporting?

WG: It’s easier than ever to engage with different audiences and gather useful information that helps us measure and improve our clients’ reporting and communications. Over time, we can iteratively improve how a company plans, segments and integrates its sustainability communications and reporting, so that it can be more intentional. Some users will be delighted to view spreadsheets that are aligned with specific frameworks (and they’ll know what to do with them). Others will want to explore and experience aspects of a company’s value chain and actively contribute with disruptive, innovative practices.

Stay tuned for a new research report from Works Design Communications next month. For more on CR reporting, read my recent article in Triple Pundit: Experts Offer Guidance on Reporting Frameworks to Ease Reporting Pain.