Since about 2005 I’ve kicked around this phrase: “Sustainability reporting is like taking the blinders off our great beasts – helping our institutions see that eliminating harms and improving societal and environmental conditions is actually in their own interest.” It took (what I perceived to be) a positive reaction from one of the respected authorities at the Boston Security Analysts Society‘s recent conference on sustainable investing to get me to “put this out there.”
This analogy is an apt one. Maybe it’s even useful. Consider using it the next time we’re asked: “what, really, is the ultimate goal you hope to achieve with sustainability reporting?” Here’s why you might like it:
Under law, an old and accepted idea is that an organization is treated as a single person – a concept that dates back at least to Roman times and facilitates things like contracting (i.e., an agreement can be made with an organization that may outlast any single human representative; of course, treating a corporation as a person in every context – e.g., constitutional or campaign finance law in the U.S. – may not be desirable).
Yet clearly, whether we consider public entities or private corporations, due to their vast size and power and durability, and despite management’s best efforts to steer them well, they can have an unwieldy tendency to sometimes trample over other interests and do harm – the analogy of an enormously industrious (but potentially lumbering and damaging) beast therefore comes to mind as a more appropriate metaphor.
The blinders in our analogy above – especially in the case of for-profit corporations – is the legal mandate of “putting the interests of the corporation and shareholders first” and the duty to report financial results quarterly and annually. Disciplined focus is a virtue. But it can make the best of us (willfully or unintentionally) blind to side effects of our actions, especially if negative side effects are diffuse and felt over longer periods of time.
When we consider Enron, Lehman Brothers, BP, Monsanto, or VW, or any of the plethora of examples of harmful and costly corporate malfeasance or negligence, it’s clear that actually what you don’t know (or fail to monitor and control) can kill. Or at least cost billions of dollars. Or lead to your own organization’s collapse. Or to creating an enormous economic, environmental, or societal hazard.
Sustainability reporting functions as “taking the blinders off the beast” because the practice encourages an organization and its leaders to find out what matters to all those upon whom it has an effect and to consider the environmental, societal, and economic side effects of its functioning, in addition to evaluating and describing its governance.
By systematically and regularly quantifying those side effects and publishing performance metrics and plans for their improvement, the ultimate aim is to help the organization eliminate negative side effects, and ultimately to even see that its best profit-making opportunities may be related to solving problems.
So, to paraphrase the quote above and re-cap: sustainability reporting is like “taking the blinders off our beasts to help them see their long-term success as aligned with solving problems and improving societal and environmental conditions.” Please feel free to comment if you agree, disagree, or would restate this. Thanks!