Three years ago, fresh out of business school and having just accepted a position to lead CSR reporting at Timberland, a fellow MBA asked me how I intended to valuate the time employees spent painting a school during company-sponsored community service time.
This was a typical MBA question, but one that helped frame the challenges a CSR reporting executive might face. As corporate social responsibility has become more strategically relevant for companies, it is inviting greater scrutiny by both internal and external stakeholders.
As the corporate landscape changes and “doing good” is no longer good enough, the challenge is to apply the “return on investment” mindset to the service we do in the community, to protecting human rights in our contract factories and to lessening our impact on the environment.
After the release of three CSR reports and a facility report (PDF), Timberland is now taking stock of its entire reporting process. In doing so, I’ve thought about the original challenge posed to me when I graduated: What’s the value of the work we have done?
Specifically, what’s the value of the reporting process? What about the value of the actual report?
The first question is easy is answer. It’s hard to deny the value of the CSR reporting process. In my three years, we have forged connections internally and externally with stakeholders around our material, environmental and social impacts as a company. These relationships have profoundly focused our efforts and helped us develop feedback loops for performance management.
The second question is a little more difficult: Do our stakeholders see value in the actual product – the CSR report itself?
Self-assessment is rarely objective, but at Timberland, we have the benefit of online surveys and stakeholder discussions to help us understand the usefulness of our 2006 report. Of all of our stakeholders, we have found that employees get the most value from a GRI CSR report. It connects our initiatives into a narrative that allows them to explain what “CSR” means at Timberland to external consumers, customers, and suppliers. It becomes a reference document for them.
Another discovery is that the report has become a platform for our stakeholders to engage the company on social and environmental issues. This common platform allows for more constructive and focused conversation on important issues.
While these are valuable uses for the report, much work is left to be done. For example, Timberland needs to engage its consumers in these same conversations. We also need to report the information in a timelier manner to increase its usefulness. Finally, we need to look at different communication channels to engage a broader group of stakeholders.
Confronting this question of value has put Timberland on a new path to change the way it reports on this information.