Sustainability Reporting Guidelines

During the past few weeks of my internship at MHS I have begun to draw parallels between how MHS operates compared to the University of Minnesota, my other place of employment. Working in two different office settings has allowed me to see how both institutions are similar and different. A parallel that relates directly to my work are the sustainability initiatives and engagement campaigns at both institutions. Having been at the U for 5 years I have grown accustomed to their campaigns, almost forgetting the signs to turn off the light even exist. The parallels between the programs, along with having read through the MHS sustainability audit, had me questioning how institutions and corporations report on sustainability and is there a way to compare numbers between institutions?

As companies began to publish non-financial yearly reports, questions arose as to what the requirements and standards for these reports would be. That is when Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) developed a set of standards for a corporate sustainability report (CSR). The standards outlined what is covered in a CSR, highlighting that a “model” report would be transparent to the reader, divulging both the positives and negatives, along with providing metrics. As you may be aware, sustainability doesn’t just apply to the environment, but involves economic and social aspects as well. GRI realizes the importance for companies to also look at social and economic practices. This means that a good report not only gives the reader numbers of how much Greenhouse Gases (GHG) they are emitting and how much money they are saving, but it also provides data for social sustainability practices within the corporation.

In today’s day and age it can be difficult to fully trust that a company is providing its readers with complete transparency when it comes to CSRs. Being in the middle of the green revolution, where being “eco-friendly” is a trend, several companies have fallen into the habit of greenwashing. Greenwashing is the practice of a company misleading their consumers about their environmental practices. So, how can the public grasp what a CSR is trying to communicate without being sucked into the greenwashing that could be clouding the report? In a recent article titled, “How to read a sustainability report”, Marc Gunter explores how to grapple with a CSR. He gives five tips to keep in mind while reading a CSR:

  1. Recognize what’s left out of the report
  2. The companies greatest impacts should be the focus
  3. Remember what type of company you are reading about
  4. Compare reports between similar companies
  5. Make sure it is credible

As I read more about GRI and CSRs I thought about the sustainability work we do here at MHS, specifically how our reports are portrayed to MHS staff and the public. Since our sustainability initiatives are fairly new, the sustainability audit mostly focuses on GHG emissions and data that is more readily obtained and analyzed. Currently, our sustainability audit has a strong environmental and economic sustainability approach. GHG emissions are recorded for each historical site and then normalized by square footage and visitor occupancy. This allows for data to be compared between a site that might not have a great amount of visitors and one with a high visitor rate. Although there is a social sustainability part to the More for a Mission campaign, the sustainability audit does not have as much information about these initiatives as GRI outlines for a “model” report.

Then, how could MHS incorporate more of the social sustainability information into the sustainability audit? Although GRI guidelines are geared towards for-profit corporations they can still serve as adaptable guidelines for institutions likes MHS. GRI guidelines state that the social dimension of sustainability focuses on the social systems within the corporation, including labor practices, human rights, society, and product responsibility. An example of social sustainability data for MHS would be showing how many volunteers work for MHS and how many hours they give to the Society. Another way to report social sustainability would be to collect numbers on labor practices, which would include MHS programs for skills management and lifelong learning. This means demonstrating how much training employees are receiving. One might ask why would a company's employee training statistics demonstrate a socially sustainable company? These statistics show how MHS invests in their employees and sees the importance in assisting them in their career goals.

A company that incorporates social sustainability data and campaigns into its CSR is Seventh Generation. Seventh Generation strives to be one of the industry leaders when it comes to CSR reporting. They openingly publish their CSR online and highlight how the company meets each requirement of the GRI guidelines. Seventh Generation does this to be more transparent to their stakeholders, in an attempt to engage and allow them to see what steps the company is taking to be more sustainable. Seventh Generation’s transparent CSR, that highlights all three pillars of sustainability, provides the company with a framework that guides every decision made and promotes a system thinking approach to decision making.

Although MHS has already been recognized as one of the innovative museums when it comes to sustainability initiatives there are still areas for improvement. Most of the leaders in CSRs are corporations, such as Seventh Generation, but MHS can still use their reports as examples for improvements to the sustainability audit. In order for MHS to incorporate more social sustainability practices into their reports more social data needs to be collected and available for analysis. As MHS moves forward with their More for a Mission campaign it would add another dimension to the already vast sustainability reporting if the social sustainability practices and opportunities at MHS were highlighted within the audit.