Investing in Bangladesh factories–for a profit

bangladesh-garment-workersOliver Niedermaier is selling a “capitalist solution to one of capitalism’s worst problems” — the unsafe, exploitative, polluting factories in the global south. That’s the topic of my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

After more than a decade of corporate investment in social responsibility programs, codes of conduct, teams of inspectors and public reporting – all of it intended to improve the working conditions of factories in poor countries – anyone paying attention knows the system isn’t working very well. The Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh were poignant symbols of its failure.

Maybe it has failed because Western clothing brands and retailers – Nike, Gap, Walmart and the rest – have been behaving like regulators by writing rules and meting out punishment. At least, so argues Oliver Niedermaier, the founder and CEO of Tau Invesment Management. He advocates that businesses should instead try acting like capitalists, using markets and the potential of investment gains to reform their global supply chains.

Tau plans to raise $1bn to turn around factories in poor countries, beginning with the garment industry. Tau promises to deliver “improved transparency, greater dignity for workers, cleaner environments for communities, and enhanced performance and value for stakeholders”.

As the story goes on to say, this is an intriguing–but very much untested–idea. Can Tau raise the money? Will brands partner with the company, a newcomer to supply-chain issues? Most important, can factories in places like Bangladesh that adhere to the highest standards compete effective with those who do not?

I don’t have answers. But I do know that a new approach to the problem is desperately needed.

My sustainability mood swings

800px-Solar_panels_on_house_roofTwo steps forward, one step back.

The other day, Guardian Sustainable Business published my story about SolarCity, a remarkable success story in the world of sustainable business. Solar City, which provides rooftop solar power systems to homes and business, is growing fast, and its stock is on a tear. The company says it will deliver solar energy to 1 million homes by 2018, and last month it started its own foundation to deliver solar to schools in the poorest parts of the world.

Here’s how my story begins:

For US rooftop solar company SolarCity, rapid growth is bringing new opportunities – as well as a backlash.

The San Mateo, California-based firm has installed rooftop solar systems on more than 100,000 homes (by my estimate), and signs up a new customer every five minutes. It employs more than 4,200 people, and hires 15 more workers each day. Shares of the company, which sold for $8 at its initial public offering a little more than a year ago, now trade for $59, as of Friday.

And, in a sign of its maturity, SolarCity has just launched the Give Power Foundation, a non-profit that will donate solar power systems to schools in poor countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

It’s unusual for a young company that isn’t yet making profits to start a foundation, but Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s founder and CEO, told me by phone: “We’re now at a scale that it’s something that we really want to do, and we’re just going to bear the costs.”

You can read the rest here. And, of course, SolarCity isn’t the only fast-growing solar firm. Sungevity, SunRun, Sun Edison and others are all growing, too, although all are depending on government subsidies, at least for now. It’s hard not to feel optimistic about where the solar industry is going.

Vegas-style innovation

Vegas-style innovation

Now I’m in Las Vegas, a city built on hopes and dreams (“C’mon, baby, just one more spin of the roulette wheel…”) and I’m feeling a bit pessimistic about the future. To be sure, the city’s big hotel and casino operators — MGM Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, Caesar’s and others — are investing many millions of dollars to save energy and water, and reduce their carbon emissions and waste. But the Strip is awash in neon every night, the slot machines blare sound and music 24-7, the traffic is horrible (yes, it’s the week of the city’s biggest event, the International Consumer Electronics Show) and the feel of the place is either tacky/ugly/excessive (the $24.99 two-pound hamburger sold in the restaurant in my hotel) or or over-the-top luxurious/excessive. To the right is a banner for a combination strip club and shooting range, enabling patrons to celebrate sexism and violence, under one roof.

I’m guessing my mood to change again in a few hours. I’m going to moderate a panel with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Sasha  Lezhnev of the Enough Project and the actor and activist Robin Wright on the topic of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.In a keynote speech at CES on Monday evening, Krzanich announced that all of Intel’s microprocessors are now validated as conflict-free for gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten. The company has led the electronics industry’s efforts to cut off the lucrative trade in minerals that supported armed groups in the eastern Congo and its neighbors.

The result? As Krzanich and John Prendergast of the Enough Project wrote in a USA Today op-ed:

Rebel groups now generate an estimated 55 to 75% less funding from three of the four conflict minerals, according to Enough Project field research, because it is much more difficult to sell untraceable minerals on the global marketplace.

This is an important story about an industry trying to do the right thing. More to come…

[Disclosure: Intel is paying me to moderate the discussion on conflict minerals at CES.]

Sustainable business: What’s ahead in 2014?

equipmentprotection3So the answer to the question above is, honestly, it’s anybody’s guess.

As a reporter, I’ve always resisted the idea of what editors like to call “forward looking” stories. Predictions are fun, but it’s hard enough to fully understand the present and the past. My preference is to leave the future to fortune cookies.

So when an editor at Guardian Sustainable Business asked me to write about the year ahead in sustainable business, I’d ignored her and took a look back instead. Here’s how my story begins:

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future, the baseball player Yogi Berra reportedly said. (Or was it the physicist Neils Bohr? Or Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn?)

Whoever said it, I agree – so instead of trying to forecast 2014, let’s look back at the the big stories in sustainable business from 2013, knowing that they will shape whatever lies ahead. As the US editor-at-large ofGuardian Sustainable Business, I’ll offer what is unavoidably a US-centric perspective.

My story goes on to look at five themes of the year just past:

  1. The decline in greenhouse gas emissions in the US
  2. Solar power, mainstream at last
  3. The aftermath of Rana Plaza
  4. Industrial-strength sustainability, by which I mean collaborative efforts to change entire industries or systems.
  5. Inequality, on  the political agenda

You can read the rest of the story here.

I see reason to be optimistic about all of these themes. Each offers opportunities for forward-thinking companies. That said, the challenge for business in 2014 will be to accelerate and scale its efforts to deal with the world’s big environmental and social problems. That’s one prediction I will comfortably make.

Walmart and Target, chemical cops

toxic-beauty1

Health care activists say some cosmetics made by Revlon contain cancer-causing chemicals

Cops of the global village.

That was the headline on a FORTUNE story about globalization that I wrote in 2005. I didn’t care for the headline, but it reflected one of the arguments in the story–that as US companies build global supply chains, they are exporting western health, safety and environmental standards to the global south. Governments in places like Bangladesh, India and China were doing a poor job of protecting the health, safety and human rights of  workers in garment, toy and electronics factories, so US and European brands stepped in. Companies were, in fact, acting like cops–writing laws (they called them codes of conduct) and inspecting factories to make sure they were obeyed. This system, well-intentioned as it was, has not worked very well, as we learned this year with the garment-factory disasters in Bangladesh.

Now something similar is happening right here in the US of A. Walmart and Target, the nation’s biggest and third-biggest retailer (Kroger is No. 2) have adopted policies to regulate so-called “chemicals of concern,” a term used to describe chemicals that are legal despite questions about their impact on human health. This week, Guardian Sustainable Business is running four stories that look at how and why retailers turn into regulators–an introduction by me, stories about Walmart and Target by freelance writer Bill Lascher and a contribution from John Replogle, the CEO of Seventh Generation, which calls “itself the nation’s leading brand of household and personal care products that help protect human health and the environment.”

This is, to put it mildly, a big subject, and so I won’t attempt to summarize our coverage. To give you a sense of the complexity, here is how my story begins:

Last fall, Revlon took fire from activists who alleged that the company’s cosmetics contain toxic chemicals. “Women shouldn’t have to worry about cancer when they apply their makeup,” said Shaunna Thomas of UltraViolet, a women’s group that joined forces with the Breast Cancer Fund and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to go after Revlon. “It’s deceptive to wrap yourself in pink and have these chemicals in your products.”

Revlon’s general counsel, Lauren Goldberg, shot back an indignant cease-and-desist letter, calling the charges “false and defamatory” and demanding a retraction. “Revlon has long been … at the forefront of the fight against cancer,” she wrote.

So which is it? Should women throw away their Revlon eyeliner, mascara and lip gloss? Or should they feel good about supporting a company that cares?

In a perfect world, the government would rely on sound science to regulate chemicals in personal and home care products, and consumers could safely assume that there’s no need to worry about the things they buy. No one would ever have to know about chemicals with odd-sounding names like phthalates1,4-dioxane, or triclosan – one of the chemicals that, just this week, the FDA stated it would require soap manufacturers to prove safe.

But in the real world, science can be messy and inconclusive; government regulators can be overwhelmed, indifferent or restricted by industry concerns; nonprofit groups can resort to scare tactics to attract attention or money; and manufacturers can be ignorant, careless or worse about the chemicals they put into their products. As a result of all of this, many everyday items – eyeliner and nail polish, baby bottles, household cleaners, children’s toys, even pizza boxes and antibacterial soaps – have been found, at one time or another, to contain chemicals that could make you sick.

What’s more, even as risks emerge, governments can be excruciatingly slow to respond: several European countries banned lead from interior paints in 1909 because they recognized that lead exposure can cause serious health problems in children, but the US didn’t outlaw lead house paint until the 1970s. Rich Food, Poor Food, a book written by Jayson and Mira Calton earlier this year, lists a number of foods that are banned outside of the US, but permitted within it.

All this helps explain why Walmart and Target are taking matters into their own hands.

Subsequently, Bill Lascher took a closer look–and a critical one–at the policies at both Walmart and Target. His Walmart story is headlined Walmart aims to reduce 10 toxic chemicals–but won’t divulge which and his Target story is headlined Target aims for healthier products under a veil of secrecy. As you see, one reason not to rely on retailers to become de facto regulators is that they have no obligation to explain what they are doing, or why.

I know we’ll try to keep an eye on this story as it unfolds at Guardian Sustainable Business, and we are planning a session on “chemicals of concern” at Fortune Brainstorm Green in May. If you work for a company that’s engaged in the issue, feel free to be in touch.

In a week or two, I’ll have more to say about the Fortune event. In just the past few days, we’ve booked some great speakers, and I’m excited about the program we are developing.

Novelis: Towards a circular economy

novelis_evercanAs regular readers of this blog know, I find the circular economy to be one of the most exciting ideas in corporate sustainability. This is the idea, sometimes called closing the loop, that when we are done with products, they can be recycled and made into something else, with zero waste. It’s inspired by nature, of course, where nothing goes to waste.

To show the way to the circular economy, consider the aluminum can. Aluminum has the wonderful property of being able to be recycled after use, with no degradation in quality (as opposed to say, PET plastic, which tends to break down every time it is recycled.) Recently I heard about a company called Novelis that has made aluminum recycling the core of its business model. A $9.8 billion company based in Atlanta, Novelis has created a new product called the ‘evercan’ which is guaranteed to have at least 90 percent recycled content–a breakthrough that the company hopes to produce and market with a big beverage company.

Novelis is profiled in my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Recycling aluminum is a no-brainer – or, at least, it should be.

Producing aluminum beverage cans out of recycled scrap, instead of by mining bauxite and manufacturing new ingots, saves energy, carbon emissions and money. The same is true for the aluminum that goes into cars, planes, electronics and buildings.

If businesses and consumers want to get serious about creating a circular economy – where everything, once used, is made into something else and nothing goes to waste – aluminum is a very good place to start.

Yet the recycling rate for aluminum cans in the US is a mere 55%. That’s below the global average of about 70% and well below rates of better than 90% than Scandinavian countries can boast – or Brazil’s 98% recycling rate.

The low US rate represents an enormous waste of materials and energy – and a big opportunity. Atlanta-based Novelis is aggressively seizing that opportunity.

The $9.8bn firm converts aluminum into flat sheets, most of which is then turned into beverage and food cans. Novelis is already the world’s biggest aluminum recycler, and it aims to do more. Its chief executive, Phil Martens, says the company wants to turn its “whole business model from a traditional linear one to a closed-loop one”.

I’m delighted that Novelis’s CEO, Phil Martens, has agreed to speak at Fortune Brainstorm Green, the magazine’s conference about business and the environment. Next year’s Brainstorm Green will be May 19-21 at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, CA. I’m once again co-chair of the event. Watch this space for future announcements of speakers and topics.

Chip Bergh: Vegan, triathlete, Levi’s CEO

Levi's Wellthread

Levi’s Wellthread

You’ve heard about slow food.

You may have heard about slow money.

Now it’s time for slow fashion.

Last night, Levi Strauss & Co. unveiled a new collection of sustainable mens clothing called Wellthread, part of its Dockers brand. Wellthread, which the company has described as the antithesis of fast fashion–the cheap, throwaway stuff that is sold by places like Zara and Forever 21–is an attempt to produce a line of clothing that meets the very highest standards for environmental and social responsibility. I wrote about Wellthread for The Guardian, here.

chip-bergh-ls-co-ceoAt the dinner, I was fortunate enough to be seated next to Chip Bergh, the CEO of Levi Strauss. He’s an engaging guy, and while I can’t quote from our conversation–we were having dinner, and so we decided to keep his comments off the record–I can tell you that he is not your run-of-the-mill CEO. He’s a vegan, for health reasons, he told me. (The second vegan CEO I’ve met–Coca Cola’s Neville Isdell was the first.) Chip is marathon runner, biker and triathlete who has raised thousands of dollars for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. (His parents and grandparents died of cancer.) He’s also committed to the values that have made Levi’s a social-responsibility leader for more than two decades. Those facts may sound random but they are likely connected–so many people I meet in the world of sustainable business are outdoor lovers or athletes who take care of their own health, and thus understand the connections between what they do at work and the health of the planet. That may sound like a stretch, but the sheer number of marathon runners in the sustainability world has persuaded me that it’s true.

In any event, Bergh these days has more to worry about than the sustainability performance at Levi Strauss. The company has been in a long slide, and he was hired in 2011 to turn it around. Levi’s sales had fallen from a peak in 1996 of $7.1 billion to $4 billion, give or take a few hundred millions, for much of the 2000s. Even as a privately-held company that doesn’t have to answer to Wall Street, that was unacceptable.

Bergh, who spent 28 years at Procter & Gamble before joining Levi Strauss, has reorganized the company, replaced much of the senior leadership team and exited some business. In FY2012, net revenues fell slightly to $4.6 billion and net income was $144 million, up a tick. For the first three quarters of FY2013, Levi’s has enjoyed modest top-line and bottom-line growth. Through it all, he said, the company’s commitment to doing business in a principled way has remained intact.

He seemed genuinely excited by the potential of Wellthread, which for now is a modest venture–almost like a beta test, or pilot project–but nevertheless represents a forward-thinking approach to sustainable fashion, one that begins with the commitment of a designer. here’s how my story begins:

Sixteen years of work as a fashion designer in New York was enough for Paul Dillinger. He quit and took a job teaching design at his alma mater, Washington University in St Louis. “I had become somewhat disillusioned – really challenged morally or ethically – by the industry,” he says.

Then a friend recruited Dillinger to work for Levi Strauss & Co Today, he’s leading a cutting-edge initiative to take sustainable design to new heights at the 160-year-old company: a Dockers line of clothes called Wellthread. The line brings together the best practices in materials sourcing and garment manufacturing, providing social and economic benefits to factory workers in Bangladesh and delivering durable khakis, jackets and T-shirts to consumers.

Dillinger wants to weave responsibility into every stage of design, manufacturing and usage, from the cotton fields to the factories to the market and beyond.

“I saw all these different nodes of activity in the company that were tackling different problems,” Dillinger said, when we met this week at Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab, a research and development unit near the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. “The opportunity, to me, was to string all of these ideas together and create a systems approach to change.”

You can read the rest here.

The NFL and brain injury: That’s entertainment?

Are you ready for some brain injuries?

Are you ready for some brain damage?

Fifteen years ago, with my friend and co-author Bill Carter, I wrote a book about the TV show Monday Night Football, which helped build the phenomenal popularity of the NFL. I was a big football fan then. So much so that I didn’t notice until last week that the opening sequence of Monday Night Football — ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL!!! — featured the helmets of the opposing teams crashing together.

A prescription, in other words, for brain injury.

The image flashed by briefly in the gripping and occasionally horrifying PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial, based on the book of the same name by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Ward and Steve Fainaru. Watch the program if it comes around again, or watch it on the web.

As regular readers of this blog know, I gave up watching the NFL about a year ago. But I decided to revisit the topic in my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

Garment workers in Bangladesh and coal miners in India risk injury or death on the job. Their plight evokes outrage from advocacy groups and corporate-responsibility gurus.

Players in the National Football League are at risk, too – at risk of losing their mind, quite literally. Yet professional football remains America’s favorite sport, generating close to $10bn a year, with not much more than an occasional murmur of concern.

Strange.

Of course, any football fan knows that the game is violent and dangerous, especially at the pro level. Powerful men collide at high speed, and a bone-jarring tackle can break a leg or, occasionally, a neck.

But football is dangerous in another, more insidious way, as we were reminded last week by the publication of League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, an examination of football’s concussion crisis by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Ward and Steve Fainaru. As the book and an accompanying PBS Frontline documentary vividly demonstrate, football also is inherently dangerous to the brain – an inconvenient truth that the NFL went to extraordinary lengths to hide, deny and muddle.

Of course, as I note in the story, NFL players are paid a lot better than garment workers or coal miners. And today’s players surely are aware of the risks they face.  But the price they pay – brain damage that robs them of their very sense of self – is terribly steep. And to what end? To make our Sunday afternoons and Monday nights a little more fun? So corporate sponsors can sell beer and cars?

Frontline is produced by a PBS station in Boston, which sent a reporter out to get reaction from Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, and star quarterback Tom Brady.

Belichick said:

First of all, I’m not really familiar with whatever it is you’re referring to, whatever this thing is. But it doesn’t make any difference whether there is or isn’t one going on. We have our protocol with all medical situations, including that one and that’s followed by our medical department, which I’m not a doctor and I don’t think we want me treating patients.

What we do in the medical department, that’s medical procedures that honestly I don’t know enough to talk about. But I can say this, there’s nothing more important to a coach than the health of his team. Without a healthy team, you don’t have a team. We try to do everything we can to have our players healthy, to prepare them, to prevent injuries and then to treat injuries and to have them play as close to 100 percent as we can because without them, you have no team.

Hmm. The Pats do “everything we can to have our players healthy…because without them, you have no team.” And if they lose their minds after they retire, well, you win some and you lose some.This guy has a heart of gold.

In fairness, the NFL is doing a better job these days of treating and preventing concussions. There have been rules changes, medical personnel on the sidelines, better understanding among all of the real risks of contact. Finally. But, remember, football is played in college and high schools, too, where kids model themselves on the hard-hitting pros. Frontline put a spotlight on a college and a high school player who, shockingly, suffered from brain injuries that appeared to be–no, we can’t be sure–related to football.

Do they understand the risks they are taking? Who’s looking out for them? Clearly not the NFL.

Bankers, behaving badly, backing coal

india-coal-power-007The  big Wall Street banks say all the right thing about sustainability and corporate responsibility but investment bankers are, above all, driven by the deal. Turning away business is just not part of their skill set, or mind set.

That’s the best explanation that I can come up with for the fact that Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank, along with three India-based banks, are managing a share offering for Coal India, a company with an environmental and human rights record that is, at best, spotty.

Their decision to do so is the topic of my story today at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

If you’re an investor seeking to profit from the coal industry and you’re indifferent to the issues of climate change, forest destruction and human rights, Bank of AmericaGoldman SachsCredit Suisse and Deutsche Bank have a deal for you.

The four US and European banks, along with Indian investment banksSBI Capital MarketsJM Financial and Kotak Mahindra Capital Co., are managing a share offering in Coal India, one of the world’s biggest coal-mining companies.

They’re doing so despite Coal India’s dismal environmental record, despite the climate impacts of burning coal, despite allegations that the state-owned firm has run roughshod over tribal communities and despite objections by the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network, as well as by Indian environmentalists.

They’re also doing so despite their own rhetoric about sustainability and corporate responsibility.

I hope you take the time to read the story. It’s tough, I think, but it’s a reflection of the difficulty that the corporate-responsibility and environmental movements have had gaining traction on Wall Street. Most of the big financial institutions have made “green” commitments, and that’s great, but if they continue to finance fossil fuels on a grand scale, they could wind up doing more harm than good.

None of the banks would talk to me on the record for the story, and I imagine that if they did, they would say, correctly, that burning fossil fuels is perfectly legal in India, and everywhere else, as is dumping emissions into the atmosphere at no cost. That’s a political problem, and not a Wall Street problem, they could argue. True enough. But if the banks believe what they say about climate change and the environment, they should then make their voices heard more forcefully in the climate debate in Washington and elsewhere.

Until they do, their rhetoric about sustainability will remain hollow.

Sustainability at McDonald’s. Really.

coffee-cupHere’s a question. Which trio of companies has done more for the environment…

Patagonia, Starbucks and Chipotle?

Or Walmart, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s?

I don’t have an answer. Patagonia, Starbucks and Chipotle have been path-breaking companies when it comes to sustainability, but Walmart, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are so much bigger that, despite their glaring flaws, and the fundamental problems with their business models, they will have a greater impact as they get serious about curbing their environmental footprint, and that of their suppliers.

Small and mid-sized companies create sustainability solutions, as a rule, but the impact comes when big global corporations embrace them. Size matters.

All that is by way of introduction to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business, about McDonald’s coffee-buying practices and the role of the consumer in driving them to scale.

Here’s how it begins:

Across the US, McDonald’s last week introduced pumpkin spice lattes made with Rainforest Alliance-certified espresso. No such assurance comes with McDonald’s drip coffee. Why? Because consumers haven’t yet shown Mickey D’s that they care.

That’s gradually changing, says Bob Langert, the vice president of sustainability for McDonald’s, and not a moment too soon. As the world’s biggest fast-food chain, which has 34,000 restaurants in 118 countries, seeks to make its supply chain more environmentally friendly, McDonald’s is trying to enlist its customers as allies.

That’s why the pumpkin lattes marketing features the little green frog seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance. That’s also why McDonald’s fish sandwiches, for the first time, feature a blue ecolabel from the Marine Stewardship Council certifying that the pollock inside comes from better-managed fisheries.

By talking to consumers about its sustainability efforts, McDonald’s hopes to build brand trust and loyalty. Until recently, people had to dig into the company’s website to learn about its environmental performance.

“We’ve had sustainable fish for many years, but we didn’t tell people about it,” Langert told me during lunch in Washington DC. (He ordered fish.) “We feel there’s a tipping point coming. We see the consumer starting to care. Consumer expectations are rising.”

What McDonald’s is doing with its coffee isn’t innovative. Starbucks paved the way. But if McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-Eleven, Walmart, Costco, Target and others follow, the world’s coffee farmers will be a lot better off.

Meantime, McDonald’s is leading the way as it encourages potato farmers to use fewer pesticides and less fertilizer, as the story goes on to say. And it could potentially have a huge impact as it tackles its most important supply chain–beef.

Elitists will scoff at everything McDonald’s does, of course, and some of their criticisms have merit. A Big Mac, it’s safe to assume, has a big carbon footprint. Eating too much food from Mickey D’s (or anywhere else) makes people fat. I’d like to see fast-food chains pay their workers better, even if that means customers will have to pay more for breakfast or lunch. But on the environment, McDonald’s is moving in the right direction. Just as important, the company is trying to move its customers along, too.

You can read the rest of my Guardian story here.

How to read a sustainability report

voices_gunther2It’s no exaggeration to say that a new corporate sustainability report is published nearly every day of the year. After all, most of the Fortune 500 now generate reports, many of which read like paeans to exemplary business behavior. If companies behaved as well as they are portrayed in these reports, the world would be a much, much better place.

Still, CSR or sustainability reports can be a useful starting point for looking at a company and its impact. In my latest story for the environmental website Ensia, I offer a guide to reading these reports. Here’s how it begins:

Corporate sustainability reports have been around since … well, it’s hard to say.  The first report may have been published by “companies in the chemical industry with serious image problems” in the 1980s, or by Ben & Jerry’s in 1989 or Shell in 1997. No matter — since then, more than 10,000 companies have published more than 50,000 reports, according to CorporateRegister.com, which maintains a searchable database of reports.

But who really reads them? As a reporter who covers business and sustainability, I do. Maybe you do, too — as an employee, investor, researcher or activist.

Here, then, are five tips to help you make sense of the next report that lands on your desk or arrives via email.

You’ll have to read the Ensia story to learn more but the key word to remember is context. The best corporate reports put their data in context, by comparing it with prior years or previous goals or industry peers or even the needs of the earth. Few reports meet this standard, alas.

Thanks to Steve Lydenberg and Bill Baue for their help with this story.

Illustration courtesy of Ensia