Scorecard of Organisational Un-sustainability
by Rob Gray
Rob Gray (British, born 1948) is a qualified chartered accountant and was editor of Social and Environmental Accounting Journal from 1991 to 2007. He is the author/co-author of over 300 books, monographs, chapters and articles. His books include Accounting for the Environment and Accountability: Changes and challenges in corporate social and environmental reporting. His work has appeared in nine languages other than English. He was Director of the Centre for Social and Environmental Accounting Research (CSEAR) from its inception in 1991 to 2012.
I envisage that all large organisations would be ranked by something which genuinely sought to examine their environmental and social un-sustainability, i.e. unlike measures like the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. A traffic light system would be nice, but almost everybody would be red and there are only so many shades of red, so we might have to use minus scores.
Of course the idea is ridiculous because virtually no organisation produces the data necessary for us to assess it. For that, there needs to be a concerted effort to require all large organisations to discharge their social, environmental and sustainability accountability and desist from the present misleading (if well-intentioned) greenwash.
The components might well be cumbersome but would probably comprise:
A proper triple bottom line, based on a combination of a full stakeholder mapping and eco-balance reporting;
An ecological footprint; and
Some estimation of the (negative) impact on social justice.
Corporations are essential components of (un)sustainability and their accountability is crucial. The influence of large corporations is not in question: the largest companies are bigger than many national governments; multinational corporations dominate consumption, production and innovation throughout (especially) the developed world; they account for the bulk of world trade. More subtly, large corporations have a crucial influence on the global political economy, whether through their influence on governments, on attitudes, on information or on global decisions. So whether we are talking about consumption, pollution, waste, technical change, production, marketing, wealth and its distribution, affluence, wealth or choice, the role of the corporations is critical. We certainly cannot, therefore, discuss sustainability without discussing large corporations.
But just as it would be unhelpful to assume that all corporations undertake their roles in a manner completely malign to society and the planet, it would be foolish to assume that all corporate actions are benign and, indeed, contribute positively to all stakeholders. Societies need to be able to assess the balance between the malign and the benign consequences of corporate action. The making of such assessments is a cornerstone of democracy and it requires formal systems of accountability
It comes as no surprise that no organisation (of which I am aware) has come close to producing anything like this – despite all the self-adulatory propaganda. But individual organisations have produced the components of this to varying degrees: Traidcraft and CFS, Danish Steel Works, BFF. Nobody (as far as I know) has tried to address the social justice component.
In future, we must refuse to tolerate the specious use of the term “sustainability” with respect to organisational reporting without some explicit link to, say, ‘limits to growth’ data. We must demand organisational accountability as a duty not a voluntary matter of choice, explain and reiterate the practicability of a formal accountability and challenge business claims in this direction.