Suffering from insomnia or merely unable to doze peacefully? Well, forget spending money on medics or medication, help is just a mouse-click away. It is in the form of a PDF document that is available on most corporate websites these days. All one has to do is visit a top Indian corporate website, move to the sustainability section and just download one of the sustainability reports. It doesn't matter really which year because almost all seem alike.
Verbose and containing obtuse soliloquies from the top management, these PDF tomes that usually run into hundred pages or more are great at inducing sleep. To put it mildly, sustainability reports from Indian companies are tedious, boring and largely uninteresting. It is almost, as if the companies don't wish you to go through it, thus making it all long-winded; rambling on obtusely on a plethora of issues.
But then, they aren't meant to be that way.
Corporate sustainability reports are meant to be a compendium of economic, environmental and social impacts caused by everyday activities. Thus, within the report, a reader will get to know the performance of the company on parameters like usage/reduction of power, usage/reduction of water, gender diversity. There is no fixed standard format on how these metrics get reported, thus a company is at complete liberty to present according to its fancy. There are a handful of formats that are available, like GRI (Global Reporting Initiative), BRR (Business Responsibility Report), the IIRC, CDP or even the SASB. The best thing is that reporting on Corporate Responsibility (CR) is quite common among the top companies in India, thanks to the notification by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) mandating all the top 500 companies to do so. As a result, India was found to be the country with the highest rates of CR information in the annual financial reports, followed by Malaysia and the UK. In fact, the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) launched India's first carbon-efficient live index Greenex that measures the performances of companies in terms of carbon emissions.
So, the question arises, if sustainability is so important then why are these reports such sleepy tomes? The real issue lies in the overall approach, not to merely reporting but to sustainability in general.
Companies in India tend to have a rather interesting approach to sustainability. On one hand, they seem to be in love with the concepts of it, but wary of embracing it fully. Sustainability is often treated as an externality. Rather than an ethos that has to be integrated across the business functions, it is treated as a process that comes with its own cost and profits. The result is sustainability becomes a function that is managed by a team of professionals led by a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO). For a major part of the year, the sustainability team will be busy gathering data for the report, and then occasionally wake up for World Environment Day, World Water Day, or some other day, when they will try and engage the employees on some aspects of conservation. Barring a few exceptions, sustainability is not really integrated into the corporate DNA, like it should.
And if lack of vision was not enough, there is also the issue of corporate social responsibility or CSR. Ever since, the government implemented the new Companies Bill making CSR spend mandatory, the focus of companies have shifted to social responsibility or spending their 2% of net profits (average three years) on a set of pre-approved objectives like women's' health or building toilets. CSR in some ways has been detrimental to the cause of sustainability.
So, this brings us to the essential point, what can be done to make sustainability interesting and inclusive, or in short sexy?
Here are a few things that be done:
Brevity is good
Have you read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy? Apparently, it's a brilliant work. But it’s also a tome, and we don't have the time and mental acuity to go through 1000+ pages of content, even though it might be sheer amazing. The solution is pretty simple, keep it short, straight and simple. Don't overly elaborate on how your HR has been amazing in promoting volunteerism among the employees, or how well you have cut down toilet paper in the toilets. If there is something unique tom-tom it, else, don't bother.
Tell a tale
Once upon a time, is such a brilliant phrase, because it promises a tale? The love for stories is universal, it will be tough to find a man or a woman that would not love to be told a story. A good sustainability report can also be told like a story. I recall, years back, Wipro had brought out this booklet with their sustainability report that talked about the history of the sustainability movement. It was a collector's item. I still retain my copy.
Climate Change is an issue of the 21st Century. A time where millennials are Instagramming their lives or taking up the #KiKiChallenge. This audience can't be engaged through mundane talks or lengthy articles. Sustainability custodians need to talk and engage the audiences in the same way. Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, all are tools that should be actively used in sustainability communication. Great Sustainability officers are ones that are active on these platforms and can communicate with them. YouTube can also be a great medium for spreading the message of sustainability.
It is not the CEO's job, only
If you notice a thing, the companies that are most active on the sustainability front, are often led by leaders that are aware and dedicated. Take the case of Wipro, where Azim Premji is keen to "Give it Back", or Anand Mahindra who is keen to integrate green into every aspect of the business. While this is good, this is not an ideal thing. Sustainability that is driven solely from the top, has little impact on the bottom. For sustainability to succeed, it needs plenty of stake-holders, cheerleaders, custodians and so on. It shouldn't be driven from a silo, but be pervasive like a cloud.In the end, we live in a world that is not only real but also augmented and virtual. To spread the word of sustainability, we need to cross the dimensions, engage audiences, excite them with the messaging and bring them on board. Simple stickers near the printer telling users how many trees got wasted is just not enough. For the message to be effective it needs to be done in a manner that connects and educates.