Staying cool at Hong Kong back alley food stallIt is hot and humid. You are trudging through one of the unventilated corridors in New York Penn Station. It might be August in Japan, the air is thick and cicadas are buzzing. You may be hovering over a steaming hotpot in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Whatever the circumstances, you could really go for an icy, refreshing bottle of Coca-Cola. You drop a few coins into a vending machine, pop the cap and find happiness, if only for a brief few moments. Right now, you are not worried about the contents of Coca-Cola’s most recent Sustainability Review. I wouldn’t be, either. Tomorrow though, should you begin to wonder about the environmental and social impacts of the company that makes this and other products you buy, it will be helpful to know where to look for information and how to find what you need quickly.

The website GoodGuide offers information about the health, environmental and social performance of individual products, but after clicking through to the company detail page, one is presented with a list of summary metrics with ratings provided by third party analysts and no supporting data. A good start, perhaps, but not very meaningful if you are interested in the company’s stated goals and progress made with regard to sustainability.

I found myself looking for this kind of information recently, while conducting research for the Corporate Eco Forum (CEF). CEF is a membership organization for large companies that see sustainability as a driver of business strategy. I was asked to catalog the environmental commitments and accomplishments of all member companies (about 75), which would inform CEF’s annual report and give the organization insight into what areas members do well, where they need more development, and suggest targeted networking opportunities between members. The data set included greenhouse gas emissions, use of renewable energy, energy efficiency, pollution and toxics, waste, water, preserving land and biodiversity. It also captured innovations in specific business areas, such as supply chain, fleet, information technology, buildings, employee engagement and consumer marketing.

State of Green Business 2010I started by running searches through industry news sources, including Environmental Leader and GreenBiz. I then looked for information in several third party reports, GreenBiz’s State of Green Business, World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Annual Report, and Business Roundtable’s Sustainability Report. The purpose of starting with these sources was to find out what messages had made it into the news cycle or caught the attention of industry analysts. The final step was to review the environmental performance information on companies’ corporate sites and in official sustainability or corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports. At this point, I was able to validate the information I had already collected, complete missing fields, and evaluate the overall effectiveness of the reporting materials.

“Great, but why would I need to do all that just for my bottle of soda?” You might not need to, especially if the company has created communications material that allows you to find the important pieces of information in a straightforward manner. In fact, several guidelines within the CSR reporting framework maintained by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) address the quality of the data, including balance, comparability, accuracy and clarity. I found that the best reports had a number of features in common. They reported both targets met and missed. They used the same baseline for establishing a goal (such as greenhouse gas reduction) as well as measuring progress made toward that goal. Statements were predominately objective, and all were supported by data. Organization of the report, or navigation in the case of a web based report, was clear and easy to use.

Japan's iconic canned coffee - Georgia is a Coca-Cola brandCoca-Cola jumps out as one example of a company with very well presented content. There is a link to sustainability information directly on the corporate home page. From there, a link to download the Sustainability Review is prominently featured. After the cover, the first page of the report contains a simple table of contents, and a list of the major corporate goals in health, community and environmental performance. By page six we have already come to a summary chart of performance data in all major sustainability areas for the last four years. The remainder of the report goes into more detail about performance in each area, case studies, and other supporting data. Coca-Cola does a great job of balancing clarity with enough detail to give confidence in integrity of the data.

“Ok, I see. But still, what does this have to do with me or my soda?” As individuals, the magnitude of effort needed to foster social and environmental stability can seem overwhelming. While every step we take on our own (recycling, carpooling, buying fair trade products, etc.) certainly helps, corporations that have massive scale, global reach and access to capital can change the rules of the game. As a consumer, choosing products from companies that demonstrate commitment to sustainability sends a message to the market about what kind of behavior you want to see. Whether your concerns revolve around your health and that of others, stewardship of natural resources, or preservation of cultural diversity, you can use sustainability and CSR reports to determine if the values of the company from which you buy align with your own.

Some forecast that CSR reporting will ultimately become a two-way street, as companies become proficient in using social media to better identify stakeholders (which include you) and find out what is most important for each. Becoming conversant in the challenges and progress companies have made so far will prepare you to hit the ground running when that dialog really begins to flow. I look forward to seeing you there.

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