If pushed, most practitioners within the field of corporate social
responsibility will tell you that the first proper social report by a
company was the first report of the Body Shop. That most remarkable of
companies had, in the mid-nineties, set the standard that others would
seek to follow. They would be wrong.
Take, for instance, this typical quote: "Social or environmental reports are key stages in any stakeholder dialogue process; while a stakeholder dialogue process is a key stage in any valuable social or environmental report. The first corporate social report that recognised this fact was
The Body Shop Social Statement 95." (Jem Bendell, 2000).
In terms of the history of how the format has developed, this starting point statement has the ring of truth. Nevertheless, it's worth recording here for history that the very first such report preceded that one by as much as four years.
Shell Canada produced its 'Progress Toward Sustainable Development' report in 1991 - just a few years after the Brundtland Report had more or less defined the term (give or take the background handwringing that has accompanied the phrase ever since). A copy made its way into my hands recently, following a meeting brokered by my good friends at Canadian Business for Social Responsibility, so I thought now by be an opportune time to look back and see just how much of the current 'state of the art' was pre-shadowed in the very first report.
What would I look for in a report? At the very least, one would hope for: a basic statement about the company and what it does; A top level statement from the CEO or equivalent; Some commentary about the policies and / or values of the business; A review of the company's stakeholder engagement; an analysis of what are the key environmental and social issues for the company with narrative on how the company is responding; Data showing performance in each of these areas.
The basic statement of the company's operations is there, as is the top level statement - in this case from Jack MacLeod, president and chief executive officer. "In reviewing this first report of our 'Progress Toward Sustainable Development'", he says, "it is clear that while we have made a good start in implementing our policy of June 1990, much work remains to be done. Our sustainable development policy commits us to the integration of economic and environmental decision-making."
The document includes a policy statement - a brief commitment to the principles of sustainable development. It includes a set of principles, namely stewardship, shared responsibility, prevention, conservation and resource management, waste management, rehabilitation and reclamation, scientific and technological innovation, and international responsibility.
The term 'stakeholder' was not in general circulation in 1991 - and yet the principles still managed to make their way into the Shell Canada report. "Increased expectations by the public to be involved in decisions affecting them, especially with regard to health, safety and environment, require that companies adopt meaningful consultation as an integral part of doing business.
"Consultation is necessary to build co-operative working relationships with individuals, local communities, interest groups and governments in areas where Shell operates or plans to operate. This means communicating our plans early, and listening to and addressing people's concerns when making decisions."
The report goes on to detail the different mechanisms via which the company has consulted during the previous year.
The report then identifies key issues, and gives a blend of both narrative and performance data on water conservation, atmosphere, wilderness, energy conservation, reducing waste, preventing spills and supporting communities. It concludes by setting targets for the coming year in each of these areas.
The most obvious difference between this and a modern report is the rather light touch accorded to the 'social' side within the definition of sustainable development. Nevertheless, for a document produced well before the term 'corporate social responsibility' had entered any kind of common parlance it stands up remarkably well to the expectations of a modern audience.
Sadly, there is no website to point you at to see the text for yourselves - Tim Berners-Lee was in the act of creating the world wide web when it was published!
So throughout this brief review, I've made a number of provocative statements about how the 1991 Shell Canada report is surely the first one that was produced along the modern model. Surely this newsletter, with its well-placed readership of 2000 plus will reach several people in a position to point out that, no - actually there was a report that came before. Do let us know!
from Business Respect, Issue Number 49, dated 9 Feb 2003
By Mallen Baker