An extensive study by a team of Danish researchers (Bjørn et al. (2016)) highlights the failure of Corporate Responsibility (CR) reporting to translate into tangible changes in business strategy. In Blue North’s context, this reinforces the importance of our approach: informed by ‘strong’ sustainability, our work revolves around the acceptance of absolute biophysical limits.
Over the past decade, Corporate Responsibility (CR) reporting has risen significantly, together with the increasing encouragement for companies to frame sustainability agendas and communication in terms of ecological limits – planetary boundaries; climate tipping points; or regenerative capacity, and so on.
While this may appear to be positive, to what extent does this CR reporting actually go beyond ‘talk’ to driving strategic commitments and change in respect to ecological limits? Bjørn et al (2016) endeavored to dig deeper, assessing a massive 40 000 CR reports, spanning the period 2000-2014, employing an exhaustive list of ‘ecological limits’ search terms.
Disappointingly, while the number of published CR reports has increased over this period, the proportion of reports referring to ecological limits has remained roughly stable at only 5% (see Figure 1 below).
The vast majority of the companies associated with these reports (approx. 96%) merely demonstrated awareness, with no explicit intention of changing. Only 31 companies could be described as having “defined quantitative targets with deadlines for resource consumption and/or emissions based on ecological limits”.
Amazingly, only 13 companies could be classified as “[describing] a process of aligning their product portfolio to ecological limits”.
Bjørn et al. (2016) found the most common environmental issue covered to be climate change, with other ecological limits only referred to by a few companies. While climate change has long been the focus of much debate and GHG emissions reductions plans are relatively easy to formulate and monitor, managing the impacts associated with other ecological limits is far more complex. Take, for example, communicating targets around the spatial and temporal availability of water resources.
This study demonstrates the sad inconsequentiality of CR reporting – only an extremely small proportion of CR reports actually translate identified environmental impacts into changes in business strategy.
Since Blue North’s inception in 2011, much of our product offering has evolved into equipping agri value chains with the means (in the form of knowledge and tools) to identify and manage supply chain impacts with respect to absolute biophysical limits: ‘strong’ sustainability (see, for example, the Sustainable Fruit Initiative (SFI) with WWF-SA; the SPA Development for Sainsbury’s, and the development of our Water Footprinting capabilities).
Bjørn, A; Bey, N; Georg, S; Røpke, I; and Hauschild. Is Earth recognised as a finite system in corporate responsibility reporting? Journal of Cleaner Production (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2015.12.095
 It must be noted that these included only English language reports, and reports from companies that only produce physical products.