In a recent CSR Wire article titled, “Sustainability Reports Should Have Nothing To Do With CSR“, Dr. Donato Calace writes that “many environmental offenders do a lot of sustainability reporting

[…] using it as a “safety net” to defend their legitimacy to operate.”

Further, he notes that, “When it comes to gaining legitimacy and reputation, the appearance rather than the fact of conformity is often sufficient to do the job. That is why sustainability reporting fails to prove evidence of having any substantive influence on business behavior, remaining in the symbolic management domain.”

I’m not sure I agree with everything he suggests, but it is an interesting thought exercise to consider that, since “shared definition of what is corporate sustainability and how to measure it does not exist” (i.e. there is no way to standardize performance) there is a bit of a free-for-all to use this vehicle as not much more than a platform for promoting selected data and initiatives.

His final paragraph nicely frames his argument:

“Paradoxically, decoupling the reporting process from the immediate attainment of a sustainability image is the first step to consider it a management tool before a green marketing brochure. The reporting process include tasks, practices, learning cycles that should affect a company organizational behavior, eventually shaping the strategy. Sustainability reporting has to be considered beyond its corporate communication purpose, having its own internal strategic value. Encouraging the equation between non-financial reporting and sustainability will only promote business-as-usual and lead companies towards an unsustainable path.”

There are great strides being made towards standardization, as well as in the focus and emphasis of reporting frameworks and protocols, all of which have lessened this problem as Calace describes it. However, there is no denying that there is truth to it, and the final sentences rings especially true – if we use voluntary disclosure as a way of measuring performance, we’re just encouraging greenwashing and critical omissions and – perhaps more importantly – reducing the value of the reporting exercise as an internal tool for decision making.