To start with: the value of transparency


Welcome to A|HEAD|ahead! Starting early 2010, this blog wants to capture some of my 20 year experience around sustainability.We’ll see where it takes me, sustainability is a journey, as was my job career, and this journey continues. Any comment is welcome! I’ll try to structure my ideas through useful categorization, please visit the menu on the left side to see the structure. So, let’s start right away with the first edition of the category ‘Back to basics’, that will capture a series of ideas I pulled together during my time as active blogger while working for the Global Reporting Initiative. Publishing them here again – with a certain facelift – allows me to continue where I stopped in 2008.

Sometimes overwhelmed by so many different views, details, different priorities and cultural takes on sustainable development, I find it useful to really go back to the “heart of the matter”, summarizing what we really need to achieve for a better future. I’ll start with an exercise that most of us go through at a certain moment of our career as sustainability experts, trying to explain to others in not more than 60 seconds why transparancy (e.g. through sustainability reporting) is so important if we really want to become sustainable. Here’s my elevator pitch:

“In today’s globalized world transparency is absolutely fundamental to create trust, which is the basic ingredient to create partnerships (we already know that we will only be able to create sustainable change in partnerships!); only through partnerships continuous improvement will be possible, which finally is a necessary essential to create sustainable change. Accepting this logic simply means that without the right level and depth of transparency sustainable change will not be achieved. We all need to decide if we can agree to this simple logic. Otherwise the other simple logic of W. Edwards Deming applies: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory!”

But since we know that trust in most organizations is at an all-time low all over the world (open any newspaper on any day and just count how many articles you will find on this or somehow related topics), it seems that we finally understand that we need to work towards higher levels of transparency to recreate the necessary trust, even more after the devastating financial crisis has revealed the weaknesses of rather uncontrolled capitalism, with governments that have for a long time allowed to be sidelined by the capitalist logic, and  individuals that have missed to learn to get up from their couch and fight for change (seeing themselves more as victims of a system).

This is where using the GRI Framework can help. GRI facilitates the necessary dialog of all stakeholder groups from all over the world to define the aspects any organization should take into account while assessing how to close their own transparency gap. The problems we need to solve are global, so the format that structures the expected level of transparency to create sustainable change needs to be global as well. There is no other format than the GRI Framework that serves this purpose. So, why hesitate using it?”

Well, that’s the end of the pitch, hope you like it! Having worked with the GRI network since its inception in 1997 and as a GRI staff member from 2002-2008 I have seen a massive interest to complement standardized financial information with sustainability information. Although thousands of companies, some public authorities and several NGOs have published sustainability reports (some for more than 10 years already), this movement is still in its infancy, taking into account that there are more than 60.000 multinationals out there, only a small number of governments today ask for mandatory disclosure, and the mainstream financial markets still need to better understand the value of this transparency wave (‘we can’t digest more than 3 extra indicators’ – wow!) .

For many the GRI framework has served as a ‘trojan horse’ to get the necessary attention inside the company, for others it has been a ‘reference document’ to test in how far the existing reporting approach was complete and material. For all, it has become a visible proof of ‘practicing what we preach’ – for few a confrontation with ‘greenwashing’ accusations, a possible downside of the concept of transparency, but always solvable.  The next decade will show if we are able to understand the real value of transparency in a new economic paradigm.  I’ll finish this first post with the nice saying ‘ Sunlight is said to be the best of desinfactants’. Think about it!