A team of students led by Amr ElAlfy, sessional lecturer at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at the University of Waterloo, analyzed data from a range of Canadian companies for the 2020 edition of the Award Competition for the Best Sustainable Development Report.
Taking part in the competition for a third consecutive year, Mr. ElAlfy said he was very happy with the evolution of the criteria grid used for this analysis of sustainable development reports (SDR). “The inclusion of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), and ESG and risk elements, is new, even for those who have been in the field of disclosure for a decade,” mentioned Mr. ElAlfy. He also appreciates that students are encouraged to identify how a company can exceed expectations.
“As true champions of processes, Sara Ford and Daphne Pan were good at figuring out how well ESG theory is integrated into reports and making recommendations to help companies improve their reporting,” said ElAlfy, introducing two student participants.
Strengths and room for improvement
“We were pretty tough because in light of everything Amr taught us, we had very high standards for what makes a good SDR,” stated Sara.
“Many companies make a point of mentioning standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) or the TCFD, especially for credibility purposes, and not always correctly,” she notes.
In addition, details on the frequency of the materiality study, as well as the criteria for inclusion and exclusion of stakeholders, are rarely discussed in the SDRs. “Only 4 companies have included materiality in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy, creating a report that meets global standards,” said ElAlfy. “Some of the SDRs clearly define materiality, while consistently providing links to the supporting figures, and this was the case with Bell,” said Daphne.
Transparency regarding ESG objectives also leaves something to be desired. “I had the impression that companies sometimes tried to hide information and failed to establish strong links between the targets and the facts presented,” said Daphne.
Students also found it interesting that some companies are discussing long-term goals, and they would like to see more SDRs that go beyond just short-term goals.
A career in sustainability reporting?
Daphne and Sara both show an interest in sustainability performance reporting activities. “It would be a rewarding job to be able to contribute to change in the right direction,” says Sara. “We see how people’s attitudes towards sustainable development have changed, and everyone is promoting it. I believe transparency is essential for this to happen, so I would like to be part of this movement by sharing the most accurate and authentic information,” said Daphne.
Hydro-Québec: winner in the Renewable Resources category
The company, which has just published its 18th consecutive SDR, is building on a solid structure for the preparation of the document. “It works well because we put in a lot of effort, of course, but also because the process is well run! ” underlines Mathieu Ouellet, team leader – Sustainable development, for Hydro-Quebec.
The result of a team effort involving more than a hundred people for the purposes of information collection and validation, Hydro-Québec’s SDR is intended for a specialized audience. Some of the indicators presented there are those put forward by the GRI, and in particular the “sectoral electricity supplement”. “We are also asking the GRI to look into specific things, as part of a service called Materiality Disclosure Service,” said Mr. Ouellet.
The company performs an analysis of information relevance, which is based on the GRI and AA1000 standards. This 3-year process helps orient the content of the report according to the business context, as well as the nature of the projects and activities, by analyzing their economic, environmental and social impact.
During its last business year, Hydro-Québec identified 34 sustainable development issues related to activities and their impacts. The company then prioritized the stakeholders according to the criteria of influence, impact and partnership. Then, a survey was conducted to assess the importance of the issues. The Relevance Matrix presents the results of discussion workshops in which 23 organizations and 9 representatives from Hydro-Québec participated.
Stakeholders are also consulted to assess whether the SDR has met expectations, and to identify areas for improvement.
Coordinators of the relevant business units assist the editorial team in finding the required information. “Hydro-Québec is a large company, with more than 19,000 employees. Without the help of these coordinators, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Guy Lefebvre, Director – Compliance and Sustainable Development. “The choice of these people is very strategic. So is their work.”
In accordance with the recommendations of the TCFD, Hydro-Québec’s 2019 SDR deals with the effects of climate change on activities, the governance framework in place, the strategies adopted, risk management, indicators and targets.
“We have already made a significant commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across all of our activities,” said Lefebvre. “We are now going further and aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030,” he added.
Bell Canada: winner in the Technologies and communications category
At Bell Canada (Bell), SDR writing began in the early 1990s. “When GRI became popular, we integrated it,” recalls Marc Duchesne, Vice President of Corporate Security & Responsibility at Bell. Bell also joined the UN Global Compact and its 10 principles in 2006, which greatly influences the content of the SDR. More recently, the company integrated the standards of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB).
Bell’s SDR includes hyperlinks to its list of key performance indicators, as well as some 50 other documents. “Brevity is a challenge, there is so much information to share,” says Mr. Duchesne. “People appreciate the reasonable length of Bell’s report.”
The team ensures that the SDR remains captivating, that it follows the evolution of standards and terminology specific to sustainable development and recognized by investors. “At the end of the project, we have something tangible that demonstrates the scale of our work,” he says.
Bell’s diversity initiatives within the company include its senior management Diversity Leadership Council, as well as employee-led resource groups such as Women at Bell, the Bell LGBT Network and Black Professionals at Bell (BPB). All of these groups provide greater networking, mentoring and professional development support. Notably, the company is a leader when it comes to integrating mental health supports and programs in its workplace, with a dedicated intranet for mental health and wellness and easily accessible, centralized tools and resources for team members.
“Climate change is linked to energy consumption, so it’s a challenge we’re watching closely,” said Mr. Duchesne. “We have already exceeded our GHG emission reduction targets faster than expected. However, as Bell’s network usage increases, our big challenge is to find ways to ease the growing curve of energy consumption,” he said. For this reason, Bell is seeking to obtain ISO50001 certification, and it is following the recommendations of the TCFD.
Electronic waste is also a concern, as the public wants to know where wireless devices end up when the consumer opts for an upgrade. “This is a difficult issue to manage, we provide customers with programs to recycle their electronic products and we make them aware of the importance of properly recycling their different devices,” he added.
The Competition: a precious tool
“These students are bright, young and connected and they make thoughtful judgments using the tools at their disposal,” said M. Duchesne. “Their new perspective is important for companies that write an SDR year after year, and it’s excellent for young people to develop their critical thinking. The competition creates a very interesting dialogue, and I look forward to seeing where we will be in 10 years.”
Mélanie Pilon, journalist for Finance Montreal’s Finance and Sustainability Initiative.