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Insights 6 May 2015

The Hope for Corporate Accountability

By Rida Bilgrami

Adrian Henriques in the SustainAbility London office

The SustainAbility London office regularly invites practitioners from within our network to speak to the team over lunch to share insights from their own work as well as their perspective on the sustainability landscape at large.

We were delighted to welcome Adrian Henriques, independent adviser on corporate transparency, public sector accountability, and civil society development. Adrian is an experienced sustainability professional with more than 15 years in the field. He independently researches and advises both the private and public sectors – for the likes of M&S, Camelot, GRI and social enterprises – and is a Visiting Professor of Accountability and CSR at Middlesex University Business School.

With a long career in sustainability and the accountability agenda, we were interested to hear Adrian’s perspective that “optimism is quite dangerous” in regards to the evolution of corporate sustainability and CSR over the last 15 years. Below are the highlights from our discussion.

Are companies more accountable than 15 years ago?
In a word (or two), probably not. There is a lot of noise in the sustainability field, and Adrian worries that many companies are being bombarded with, and swayed by, the latest buzzwords and ‘newest’ concepts in sustainability. He fears that “there is no memory in sustainability.” And there has never been—nor will there be—a silver bullet.

What is effective transparency?
Transparency (including corporate reporting) is an important tool of accountability. Adrian believes that there is a moral importance attached to a concept like corporate transparency because it can begin to address power relations between companies and their stakeholders. Yet, as we have articulated through our research, not all forms of reporting successfully reveal what stakeholders would like or need to know.

What is the future of corporate sustainability/CSR reporting?
Adrian admits that the growth in reporting after nearly 15 years – around 7,000+ companies are doing corporate sustainability/CSR reporting, while the UK alone has several million registered companies – has not matched GRI’s ambitions set forth in the second edition guidelines with which he helped develop. And the uptick in integrated reporting? It is unclear that integrated reports have yet to get investors’ attention or fostered a healthy accountability cycle.

If not reporting, what?
Adrian suggests that we need to apply existing tools in better ways to stakeholder engagement, starting with addressing an organisation’s least engaged stakeholders such as indigenous communities for a mining company. In addressing their most vulnerable stakeholders first, companies have more potential to be truly accountable.

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