10 Oct 2011

Should We Celebrate the Reporting of Failure?

I remember 2002 as a time of hope for progress on the environment. I had the privilege of chairing a meeting on Business Sustainability at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in the sumptuous surroundings of the Hilton Hotel, surrounded by armoured vehicles and high security because Robert Mugabe was staying there. It did not feel very secure or sustainable.

2002 was also the year that stories about corporate irresponsibility surfaced in spades. CEOs of Enron, WorldCom, Vivendi and Marconi went from heroes to zeros, as the corporate governance debacle spread in the USA and Europe.

And whilst there was no shortage of rhetoric about lessons learnt, there was no serious attempt to make CSR reporting more rigorous and worse still, little pressure on corporations to meet higher standards of corporate governance. So I welcomed Ed Miliband’s assertions at the recent Labour Party Conference, that we need a new corporate culture to address the problem of the asset strippers and profiteering predators in our society.

I think he’s right; we need a paradigm shift in our institutional culture and consciousness in the public AND private sector. But like anything new that encompasses radical and worthwhile ideas – it is much easier to conceptualize than implement.

Cynics at Johannesburg moaned about an implementation gap and still lament the fact that many sustainability reports lack transparency, rigour and credibility. The Universities that Count Sustainability reporting and benchmarking process has also been criticised along similar lines because it focussed more on process than assessing impact.

Let’s face up to it; there is a huge gap between the stuff that gets reported and rewarded and the reality in most of our universities and colleges. It’s still pretty much business as usual with a few pioneering green stalwarts struggling to initiate real change, especially in reform of the curriculum and teaching and learning. The new LIFE Index must seriously address this challenge.

I agree with a commentary by Rory Sullivan in August, that sustainability reports should acknowledge both the good and the bad aspects of progress towards being more sustainable. But as he stresses most reports have an “unhealthy fixation on good news and corporate PR”.

Much of the current criticism of sustainability reports as well as some celebratory awards that have surfaced alongside them reflects the limited influence they have had on institutional performance. If the reporting and awarding process is reduced to a form of tokenism then it is a failure. And the good reporters are also not necessarily the best performers. The true value of performance reporting is in facilitating greater efficiency and effectiveness by identifying and remedying weaknesses.

Celebrating failure seems to be catching on too, but in a different way to “tokenistic failure”: a new Stanley Cup sized award called “the Heroic Failure Award“has just been introduced in the USA to reward creative risk taking! I wonder if celebrating heroic failure of this kind should be the next evolutionary step in sustainability reporting.

Ideas on measuring and celebrating progress through sustainability reports, indicators and awards have proliferated in the wake of the Rio and Johannesburg Earth Summits. Of course they have their place in motivating individuals and organisations but if they are to make a real contribution to sustainable development they must ultimately contribute to action that leads to transformation in our prevailing model of progress which is predicated on unlimited consumption driven growth.

Steve Martin

1 comment:

  1. Quite right Steve - I've noticed a gap between glossy sustainability reports and what actually goes on at institutions. To keep their integrity, academic institutions need to give a balanced view and not cherry-pick data, but sustainability reports seem to focus on a few (often trivial) token achievements while ignoring any sustainability initiatives that have closed down during the year, even ones which they trumpeted in last year's report. Probably the biggest problem is that institutions count the creation of strategies as a success, whether or not those strategies have been embraced and put into practice by the university at large or not. That's also true for ISO14001, which does not prove that a university is 'sustainable' (as glossy brochures may imply), just that it has an EMS and sets itself goals to achieve each year (which can be very small goals). In general I'd like to see sustainability moving away from being a managerial/marketing/CR exercise, and more an aspect of professional responsibility of all staff.