As I prepare for my favorite event of the Sustainability Reporting year, this time coming up in London on 23rd February 2016, the edie Sustainability Reporting Conference, I always like to get to know some of the companies and speakers who will be taking part in the discussion and enriching our insights into the optimistic yet complex world of sustainability reporting. Coming up this year, our fifth, a fabulous line-up of speakers (again!) from GRI, WSBCD, CDSB, UNGC, Unilever, Nestle, Diageo, Novo Nordisk, Sky, BP, Whitbread, the Crowne Estate, Aviva, Biffa Waste, McNicholas Construction and Aurora Organic Dairy.
I'll be particularly pleased to welcome Craig Edwards, Corporate Sustainability and Innovation Manager, Aurora Organic Dairy, all the way from Boulder, Colorado. Aurora is the leading producer and processor of retailer brand organic milk and butter in the U.S., operating organic dairies, heifer and calf farms and an organic dairy processing plant. Employing around 550 people, Aurora raises close to 30,000 organic cows, calves and heifers and cultivates more than 10,000 organic acres for fodder crops. In addition, Aurora sources from more than 120 independent farmers who cultivate fodder crops on 70,000 acres of organic farmland. When you think that an acre is roughly the size of a football field, you can imagine that 80,000 football fields makes for quite a lot of organic farmland. If it were not used for farming, I bet it could house quite a few organic ice cream factories.
Craig will share his experience as a first, and now second, time reporter and those early and never-so-easy steps on the reporting journey. You can read a little about that on the edie.net website in an article about Aurora Organic Dairy from the edie newsroom.
Aurora Organic Dairy was the overall winner in the First Time Reporter Category in the CRRA15 Reporting Awards for its 2012 Corporate Citizenship Report published in 2013, and has since published a no-less impressive report in 2015.
In Aurora's 2015 G4 core option report, targets and progress against targets are clearly laid out.
And there's a really interesting life-cycle analysis of organic milk.
Each half gallon of Aurora organic milk generates 4kg of GHG emissions. Cows generate 26% of these emissions. Craig was kind enough to respond to a few more questions from me. Read on, his insights are refreshing.
How long have you been in your role? What is your background prior to taking this role?
Craig: My career is rooted in analysis and strategy, primarily in the financial services sector. After joining Aurora Organic Dairy (AOD) several years ago, I was asked to periodically assist with data and analytics around the company’s long-standing sustainability commitments. My informal involvement soon evolved into a new role, exclusively focused on sustainability and innovation. What motivates you most?
Craig: Collaborating with passionate colleagues to address complex issues- and knowing that we are uncovering additional opportunities during the process- is incredibly motivating. As we explore potential solutions to achieve AOD’s CSR goals, I find inspiration in the fact that we are also working toward something bigger and unifying on the most fundamental level.
Your title is "Corporate Sustainability and Innovation Manager" – what's the connection between sustainability and innovation in your view?
Craig: In our experience, innovation has helped bridge the gap between “business as usual” and true progress. We’ve found that openness to exploring new methods and ideas is an essential element of our CSR journey. Often, innovative thinking within the organization is the first step forward, but we’ve long recognized that we don’t necessarily have all of the answers all of the time. This is why we value our ongoing tradition of partnering with universities, start-ups, and forward-thinking companies. Along with state-of-the-art technology, innovative solutions from these organizations help us continuously improve the sustainability of both our milk plant and farming operations. These sustainability benefits come in the form of greater efficiency and conservation of resources.
What is your prime motivation for reporting on sustainability?
Craig: Sustainability has been an important foundation of our business since AOD was founded in the late-1970s as a conventional dairy operator. Our CEO and founder, Marc Peperzak, always held the belief that we must care for our animals, respect our people and conserve our natural resources for future generations. Then we converted to 100% organic in 2003, and at the same time strengthened our commitment to responsible farming practices, animal husbandry practices and employee care programs. For AOD, sustainability reporting is partially about putting our practices, goals and results on paper and sharing them with our stakeholders. But more importantly, during this process of producing each of our reports, we thoughtfully revisit many important aspects of our relationship with our animals, people, and planet- a process that has led to continuous improvement. Finally, we find the reporting process to be an opportunity to listen. We incorporate stakeholder input, through which we discover other opportunities to further improve our overall CSR efforts. Over the years, we have learned that continuous improvement in our practices and transparency in our communications have been the most positive outcomes, and motivations for, publishing our CSR reports.
What were the key challenges in delivering your 2015 report? How long was the reporting cycle from start to publication?
Craig: Since our 2015 publication was our second report, we were already familiar with some of the basics. For example, similar to our report published in 2013, we were readily able to disclose our impacts - supported by primary data and standard accounting methodologies. However, one of the key challenges of our 2015 reporting process was related to the fact that it was the first time we were communicating progress versus our 5-year goals. The most challenging aspect was reporting on those goal areas where we were not demonstrating meaningful progress. Priority quickly shifted away from delivering the report itself so that we could instead focus on developing a more effective approach to address these goal areas and drive results. Another aspect of our 2015 report to note was the incorporation of GRI-G4 standards. Formally meeting the additional requirements was clearly beneficial for our company and stakeholders, but certainly demanded considerable planning and preparation. We report every two years. While our data tracking is ongoing, and we update the CSR information on our website annually, we typically spend approximately 9 months on actual CSR report preparation.
How was your experience of transitioning to G4? Did this cause you to do any things differently?
Craig: Of course, our transition to G4 necessitated additional planning, and it lengthened the reporting process, but it ultimately resulted in a more meaningful report and will help drive better CSR performance. For example, after formalizing our stakeholder engagement process and conducting a structured materiality assessment, we felt the need to add a new goal area around Worker Health and Safety.
Who has taken an interest in your report? Have you actively shared it with stakeholders?
Craig: We share our reports with our stakeholders via a master e-mail list, in meetings and presentations, and through publicly announcing the release of our reports. We have received positive feedback from our stakeholders and the CSR community on both our 2013 and 2015 reports. In fact, formally involving our stakeholders in the G4 reporting process generated considerable positive feedback from the stakeholders themselves- including retail customers, bankers and financial institutions, and suppliers.
What makes a great sustainability report in your view?
Craig: In my view, sustainability reports are defined by their substance. The best reports are able to tell the organization’s story while delivering a credible representation of their CSR efforts. I believe credibility is established through a balanced evaluation of measurable results and through clear disclosure of the plan for moving forward. Adhering to a protocol, such as GRI-G4, to transparently communicate the context of efforts and goals is essential to proving the efforts are meaningful. Of course, if the story and substance are present, attention to visual appeal is also appreciated.
I am looking forward to hearing more from Craig at the edie Sustainability Reporting Conference. Hope you will be able to make it.
Elaine Cohen is a CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional an Ice Cream Addict! Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting AND Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary Partnership for Advancing Responsible Business Practices. You can follow her on Twitter @elainecohen