The road to pinpointing corporations that care

Source: Japan Times, 12 February 2004

When it comes to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, the media never tire of airing dirty laundry.
Unfortunately, this prevents serious coverage of truly obscene stories, such as the everyday corporate malfeasance that is undermining society’s triple bottom line of economic, environmental and social wellbeing.

Critics insist that growing corporate ownership of media is to blame for editors and journalists stepping lightly around issues that impact workers and consumers. But media consumers are to blame as well, for showing more interest in Janet and Michael Jackson than in the environmental and human exploitation that is compromising our planet.
The less we ask about how corporations extract resources, treat their workers, and manipulate governments, the easier it is for them to profit at the expense of others. And as much as we say we are concerned, most of us are still much too easily seduced by corporate logos, airbrushed models and steroid-bound athletes.

Thankfully, times are changing. One by one, corporations are exchanging the flimsy veneer of multimillion-dollar PR campaigns and boilerplate annual reports for responsible business practices and comprehensive company reports that detail efforts to become financially, environmentally and socially sustainable enterprises.

For many corporations, guidance in drafting these reports comes from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) secretariat in the Netherlands, which publishes "Sustainability Reporting Guidelines." Here in Japan, even more specialized help is available from the GRI Japan Forum (GRI-FJ), which translates the GRI guidelines into Japanese and provides ongoing support and advice to organizations that are interested in raising investor and consumer confidence.

The GRI began in 1997 as a project of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) and the United Nations Environment Programme, with the goal of enhancing "the quality, rigor and utility of sustainability reporting," according to Judy Henderson, chair of the GRI board of directors, writing in the "Preface to the Sustainability Reporting Guidelines."

GRI is intended to help businesses, NGOs, NPOs, accounting bodies, investor groups and trade unions "build a consensus around a set of reporting guidelines with the aim of achieving worldwide acceptance," Henderson explains.

However, the GRI guidelines are not rules, principles or a code of conduct, nor are they performance standards or a management system. Rather, they are a framework for organizations to report on their economic, environmental, and social performance.

The obvious question is why would any organization want to report more than necessary? For most the answer is easy: They wouldn’t. But for organizations committed to a long-term relationship with their employees, investors and host communities, sustainability reporting is an increasingly popular way to prove that commitment.

"Sustainable development is both urgent and everyone’s business. GRI’s vision is to create the conditions whereby business, government and interest groups work together to achieve sustainable development based on accurate, relevant and shared information about how their activities contribute to this goal," explains the GRI Business Plan 2003-2005.

Here in Japan, the GRI Japan Forum was established in November 2002 by Toshihiko Goto of the Environmental Auditing Research Group in Japan. Goto believes that greater corporate and organizational transparency is essential for the creation of a truly sustainable society.

"GRI-FJ supports the work of GRI, but is an independent organization and focuses on activities in Japan," explains Hiroko Sugimoto, of the GRI-FJ office in Tokyo. "GRI-FJ is encouraging Japanese organizations to adopt the GRI sustainability guidelines for their own environmental and sutainability reports by holding seminars and workshops on how to adopt and implement the guidelines," she said.

"To achieve sustainability reporting and, in turn, sustainability, the GRI guidelines ask organizations to report on three key areas of activity, financial, social and environmental. This is the triple bottom line for sustainability," noted Sugimoto.

GRI and GRI-FJ encourage organizations to support the work of their respective offices, but any group can download the GRI Guidelines from the Internet and use them for free. "We simply want as many companies, NGOs, public-sector organizations and government offices [as possible] to use these guidelines," Sugimoto said.

About 400 organizations worldwide have already notified the GRI secretariat that they are using the guidelines, with the largest number (62) here in Japan. In fact, more than 100 Japanese firms are using the GRI Guidelines, in part or in total, according to Sugimoto.

In Japan, supporting members of GRI-FJ include 33 corporations, 19 NGOs and Civil Society Organizations (CSO), and 12 other groups and organizations. Corporate members include Fuji Xerox, Nihon Tetra Pac, Obayashi Construction, Shiseido Cosmetics and Ricoh.

According to Sugimoto, suppliers in particular are coming under increased scrutiny in Japan. "Supply-chain management is becoming a big concern, as more and more companies are asking suppliers to submit information on how resources are being extracted and on labor being used," she said.

Of course, change must come from within if it is going to be lasting and successful, but investor and consumer demand is a primary impetus for change. Thus, as more individuals and firms do their research before they choose a product or organization, GRI Sustainability Reporting is likely to become an increasingly valuable driver of change.

And, as GRI users have found, committing to improved performance across the triple bottom line is just plain good for business. "If organizations take a more careful look at what they are doing, then they will see opportunities for positive, and profitable, change," Sugimoto pointed out.