Friday, 25 November 2011

CSR claims – are they just talk?

UK companies making claims about social and environmental achievements may be using incorrect and irrelevant data. The finding comes from researchers at the University of Leeds and Euromed Management School (France) who analysed more than 4,000 CSR reports, rankings and surveys published by companies worldwide over the past 10 years. They found unsubstantiated claims, gaps in data and inaccurate figures.

For example, researchers found a range of surprising facts in UK telecoms company BT's 2007 sustainability report, including:

  • 99.8% of the company’s international waste is produced by just a handful of office workers in Belgium.

  • Its Irish and Dutch employees did not travel at all during the entire year.

  • Employees throughout its Southeast Asian and Australian operations only travelled by plane and consumed no water at all.

Other odd company claims uncovered by the research included:

  • In its 2009 report Italian energy company ENEL said that its carbon emissions amounted to 122,089 million tons - the equivalent of four times the emissions of planet earth.

  • Multinational ABB overstated its Sulphur- and Nitrous-Oxide emissions by a factor of 1,000 over several years.

  • Volkswagen and E.ON made a power plant and an annual amount of 2.5 million tons of CO2 disappear.

  • Ford reported more mineral waste generation in North America than worldwide (including North America).


While the findings highlight the fact that CSR reports should be treated with caution, in the case of the UK they may give a false impression. A survey released last week by consultancy KPMG claimed UK firms lead the world in corporate sustainability reporting. The KPMG survey assessed CSR reporting by the 100 largest companies in 34 countries and found that out of the UK's 100 largest firms, all published a CSR report in 2010/11. The 100% reporting rate for the UK compared to a 64% average reporting rate across all the 34 countries, making the UK the "lead country" for reporting.

So there is above average CSR reporting in the UK, but is it accurate? Well, the Leeds research looked at reports published over the last 10 years and with the best will in the world it can be no surprise that some companies got the data wrong in the early days of reporting. Although that’s not always an excuse. Dr Ralf Barkemeyer, a lecturer in CSR at Leeds University said: "Some examples show that the quality of environmental data in sustainability reports remains appalling at times, even today. In financial reporting leaving out an undisclosed part of the company in the calculation of profits would be a scandal. In sustainability reporting it is common practice. How can stakeholders assess or compare performance without exactly knowing what the data actually covers?"

What has changed in recent years is the increasing use of Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards for sustainability reporting. In the KPMG survey, 80% of companies that took part used the GRI, which is intended to bring consistency and transparency to CSR reporting.

There is now a range of GRI-certified software and tools available to help generate reports. Hopefully an area where Green ICT can improve the way sustainability data is reported.

© The Green IT Review

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