The latest GRI Readers & Reporters Survey, Reporting Change, has been released as a joint effort between Futerra, KPMG and SustainAbility. The survey follows the second round of GRI Readers’ Choice reporting awards, released in May 2010. Congratulations to the authors for finalizing their work, and also to GRI for the ongoing effort to raise the profile of reporting and of the people who demand it. But I hope you will forgive me if my response is unenthusiastic.

It’s not just the Readers’ Choice awards and survey. In the last few weeks, I’ve had the almost daily emails from Corporate Register reminding me of the ever-diminishing time left in which to vote for their CRRA ’11 awards winners. If I’m completely honest, I can’t be bothered. I read reports all the time; I just don’t see any benefit in plugging my brains into these ostensible pulse-taking efforts anymore, and sometimes I think they actually harm rather than help.

I’m a big supporter of corporate sustainability reporting. It’s been a substantial part of my professional life for decades. But reporting awards just don’t work, and they encourage the wrong type of action. They were fun for a while – and they do produce some good talking points, sometimes – but we’ve got work to do, and this isn’t it.

GRI and its supporters have put in efforts bordering on the heroic over several years to establish the Readers’ Choice awards – creating the methodology, setting up technical and integrity oversight committees, publicizing the awards and launching the results at their biennial conferences. The awards were conceived with the intention of finding the best reports in the world, without any jury of ‘experts’, just real readers. Real readers were supposed to transform the status of sustainability reporting from a niche practice dominated by consultants to a mainstream endeavour that makes a difference to our everyday decisions. It didn’t happen.

The problem, in a nutshell – and this is a bit of an embarrassment for GRI – is that the results have become a foregone conclusion. For reasons no one has fully fathomed, the awards and survey have become absolutely huge in Brazil, to the exclusion of all other countries. Unfortunately, no one has been brave enough to say this out loud, so it seems that’s up to me. The 2008 awards were led by Petrobras, hardly the first company to spring to mind when one considers the top sustainability leaders.  The 2010 awards were topped by Banco do Brasil as the overall winner, with all six categories won by Brazilian companies (Petrobras as 2008 winner were excluded in 2010, sort of like the Eurovision song contest).  In fact, not only were the six category winners from Brazil, but of the 24 runners up (four per category), 13 were also Brazilian. Of the 5700+ survey respondents, a full 73% came from Brazil. The rest comprised 10% from India, 5% from the United States, and 12% from everywhere else combined.

You have to ask why anyone would invest their time and energy in ranking a bunch of reports and responding to such a survey when they are so vastly outnumbered? And when readers’ habits seem so predictable and parochial?

They’re good reports, don’t get me wrong, and some of them are really pretty exemplary, such as Natura’s. Forgive me, but they’re not the best reports in the world. What these companies have managed is to create an audience motivated to participate in the awards.  Again, much like the Eurovision song contest.

I’m disappointed not to see this issue tackled head-on in Reporting Change. The authors – all redoubtable experts in their field – offer only a fairly weak glossing-over of the phenomenon: As Solitaire Townsend of Futerra, a formidable professional, put it in her recent Guardian blog post: ‘Of course sustainability reports from emerging markets are going to win the numbers game in surveys (bigger populations).’  This might be plausible in the case of India, which represents some 15% of the world’s population. It is not plausible of Brazil.

Maybe it’s just me, but the obvious answer seems to be that there is something highly effective about Brazilian companies’ efforts to get the word out, get people signed up, and get their ranks to the top of the list. Maybe they are a proud, ambitious and competitive society. Maybe Europeans and Americans simply aren’t all that interested in sustainability reporting. Or are just more interested in using reporting for something other than awards.

It’s a difficult truth for GRI, but the Readers’ Choice Award has taken a turn that doesn’t especially help their cause. The organization would do well to take an honest look at the most interesting questions posed (but not answered) by Reporting Change:

  1. With such low levels of report reading generally, is a global view on quality or effectiveness even possible?
  2. Can the Readers’ Choice Awards accurately select the ‘best’ entries if readers only ever read a few?

To this, I would add a third question: Does it really matter after all which reports are ‘the best’? It seems a lot more likely that the impact of reporting will come much more powerfully through integration into business practices, and integration with mainstream business reporting – and therefore into internal decisions and investors’ judgements and actions – than through a fairly small-scale cheerleading exercise.

There are other awards programs out there that recognize the best annual report, or the best corporate communications campaign or some such, but these are only of interest to the in-crowd – the PR, communications and other professions that take a technical and experienced view of the matter, and whose intention is to spread good practices in their own sector. The audiences for these are much more specialized, and narrow, but much more expert and trusted. And this is not where GRI’s interests lie.

But neither is GRI (or Corporate Register, for that matter) in the business of facilitating what strikes me as an unenlightening exercise in self-congratulation. There are ways to improve the awards and reduce some of the risks, but in the end, I think it would be little more than tinkering at the edges. It would be valuable to survey readers’ habits, needs and wishes – in a robust, reliable and probably rather expensive way – but the link to the awards distorts this beyond usability.

What other ways can you think of to recognize good reporting practices, encourage or even demand broader uptake, and flag up irresponsible practices? I would love to hear them.