Novo Nordisk leads again: Has the annual sustainability report become obsolete?

novo-nordiskAs stakeholders, we have been conditioned to expect corporate transparency to come in annual packages – annual reports, sustainability reports, and even a slow trickle of integrated reports that are now starting to gain traction.

There seems to be something magical about that 12-month timeframe which appears to satisfy our thirst for sustainability information. Or does it?

By the time we read sustainability reports, all the news is old, sometimes very old. The data is history and the stories are of a time long gone. If we’re lucky, a sustainability report contains commitments for the future, which remain relevant after publication, but practically everything else has passed its sell-by date. One the one hand, we want sustainability reporting to be a basis for dialogue and engagement. On the other hand, why engage around something that’s history and not here-and-now?

Do Annual Communication Cycles Work for Sustainability?

Annual sustainability reporting meets a need to create a fixed point in time to enable comparability from one period to the next to assess how performance has progressed. It’s a comprehensive picture of a range of activities and impacts in one place. This has its uses. But does historical reporting constitute best-in-class transparency, and does it enable us to have a meaningful conversation?

People often consider whether transparency should be a more frequent thing. More current, real-time information would enable us to have real-time conversations. A small number of companies report CSR and sustainability reportsthroughout the year. Timberland’s practice is probably the best known, and for some years now, the company has been issuing updates against sustainability targets every three months.

Dow Chemicals publishes an exemplary quarterly sustainability update with quantitative and qualitative information. The Canadian Tire Corporation does the same. Others update their websites, in the hope that stakeholders will flock there to see what’s new. Examples include Adidas’ sustainability website and Intel’s CSR blog. Most of the rest issue Press Releases whenever they have CSR-specific news, usually around something achieved or donated. In general, though, when we are looking for sustainability information, we go for the annual fix.

But where do we go to have a conversation?

[Note: CSRwire has begun to address this very gap by introducing thought provoking webinars and engaging Twitter chats with its member companies offering them and their stakeholders’ unique opportunities to use the Reports as a lever for communication, engagement and feedback. Recent examples include Unilever’s #SustLiving Twitter chat and Verizon’s Integrated Report webinar. Not only do these help contextualize sustainability for our audience, it also turns a one-way communication cycle into what it really needs to be: a two-way engagement lifecycle.]

Novo Nordisk: Forging a New Path in Transparency

Now, Novo Nordisk, a company not known for following the crowd, but for breaking new ground, is forging its own new path in transparency with a format that it hopes will add value and trigger conversations in the here-and-now. Novo Nordisk recently announced the launch of the first issue of a new digital sustainability magazine – The TBL Quarterly.

The format is online, app’d for iPads, social-media-ready and downloadable as PDF for those who read offline. All the content is sourced and written internally, so we can expect some authenticity. The first Novo Nordisk: Digital sustainability magazineedition,Investing ahead of the curve is a fascinating read, (yes, it’s on my iPad), covering the challenges of diabetes care in Indonesia, health challenges in Malaysia and improving access in Vietnam. Real, here-and-now stories, with here-and-now dilemmas.

For example, in many emerging economies, the rise in chronic disease, such as diabetes, is going to place major strain on healthcare systems. The hardest hit will be the patient. And the first TBL Quarterly puts this in acute context by discussing investments that can be made now to help avoid this, as well as other challenges, like how to successfully bring about lifestyle change in young couples in Malaysia.

As Professor Mark Hanson explains in the magazine, “a women’s health status prior to pregnancy is a major contributing factor to diabetes risk transfer from generation to generation.”

Susanne Stormer, Novo Nordisk VP for Corporate Sustainability, told me:

“We will be putting the articles and media content on our website, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. But we wanted to create a communication platform that could be used by affiliates throughout Novo Nordisk’s operations, many of which are increasingly using iPads in their stakeholder engagement. Also, we have (and plan on continuing) created the content with affiliates and departments that match the theme of a particular issue. The digital format allows us to cut out their individual article, video, infographic, photo, etc., and deliver it to them as a tailored communication resource.”

“We also hope the TBL Quarterly will be read by people who work with sustainability (in the private or public sector, NGO, investors, academics, professionals) or have a personal interest or passion. We hope they will engage with us through the new magazine because it shows some concrete examples of what can be done to address societal and environmental challenges.”

“Annual reports capture company wide, material performance in a limited amount of space. Some great stories don’t always make it in the final version. This is where the TBL Quarterly comes in to pick up these locally relevant and focused stories and give them their deserved time on the stage.”

Corporate transparency comes in many shapes and forms. I would be the last one to deny the relevance and essential nature of annual sustainability reporting, but I like the Novo Nordisk approach to here-and-now updates, which encourage today’s conversation about the future, not about historical events. There is a place in our transparency territory for both and the new TBL Quarterly content and format just may become a compelling engagement and conversation platform for the healthcare company.

The last word, here-and-now, from Susanne Stormer: “The next issue will focus on our production sites, environmental challenges, and the opportunity to have a positive influence on the communities that surround them. We really hope that people will take us up on the offer and solicit feedback, comments and suggestions.”

This article was originally published on CSRwire
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Elaine Cohen is the author of the new DōShort Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage through Transparency.  Elaine’s ebook is part of Dō Sustainability’s new DōShort series of concise, sustainable business ebooks for professionals. These practical ebooks support professionals in the vanguard of sustainable business — who are often forging new paths in their organizations — by giving them the confidence, information and tactics they need at every stage of their career.  To find out more please visit  www.dosustainability.com.

  • Wesley gee

    Thanks for your perspective Elaine. I’m not sure that your asking the right question though, as the issue is not whether historical reporting will continue to be relevant (a it will continue to be for some groups), but what is the right combination of ‘reporting’ that companies can use to inform and engage those who matter most. There is no panacea, and companies will need to choose their own path to meet expectations – while appreciating that the reporting process is what may provide as much value to companies as the final ‘output’.