Elaine Cohen, is an expert voice in the field of sustainability strategy and reporting globally & Managing Director of “Beyond Business” (www.b-yond.biz). Based in Israel, Elaine has authored three books on sustainable practice and publishes the CSR Reporting blog.
She is frequent conference chair and speaker at sustainability events and judge in many award programs.
In candid chat with Dr. Anil Jaggi, Editor in Charge, Companycsr.com(leading CSR News & Views Portal), Elaine shared her views on various aspects of CSR , Sustainability & Reporting.
Q: Do share your journey of CSR Consulting & Sustainable reporting.
I started to work in this field in 2005. Prior to that, I had more than 20 years of business experience with multinationals Procter and Gamble and Unilever, and other smaller companies in different roles and geographies. It was in my last corporate role as a Human Resources Director with Unilever that I became aware of the growing movement in corporate responsibility and sustainability. I left that role in 2005 and to focus on CSR. Within a short time, I realized that I was fascinated by the reporting world and over time, I have focused most of my work in this area. It is still an area that fascinates me, I love working on reports for clients and reading and reviewing CSR and sustainability reports. I suppose that makes me a bit of a geek, but I am ok with that!
Q: When, how & why you launched Beyond business initiative and what are your focused geographies.
The main thinking in setting up Beyond Business was to support the movement towards business transparency and to drive thinking that goes beyond basic financials and includes the broader impacts of a company on people and the environment. I believe transparency is a catalyst for performance improvement and that as a minimum, corporations, who affect our lives in so many ways, must disclose how they operate. As I am based in Israel, I naturally did a lot of work with Israeli companies in the early years, but I am now tending to work mainly with global companies around the world and count clients on all continents. I have been working virtually for many years, long before the coronavirus made it a necessity for many companies
Q: What is your Experience dealing with Govt., MNCs, Non Govt and Multilateral agencies.
I do not have direct dealings with governments or multilateral agencies. My interactions are primarily with my clients – MNCs. My experience of MNCs in my field is that they are populated with decent, hard-working, principled people who are trying to do their best because they believe in the need for sustainable business practices and they want their contribution to be meaningful. While sometimes, it’s hard for them to navigate conflicting demands within their organizations, they always aim for the ethical and positive approach. Having been myself part of the corporate system for many years, knowing the pressures involved, I have tremendous respect for my clients, and I see my role as trying to help them deliver their objectives and aspirations.
Q: How do you compare CSR & Sustainability related priorities taking shape in the last one decade for business leaders.
There is a clear evolution of CSR and sustainability from the “do no harm” type of thinking to sustainability as a set of risks and opportunities. I see companies addressing these issues much more strategically, and of course, disclosure has become almost commonplace, at some level. The concern I have is, now that financial markets are also considering environmental and social risks faced by companies, the sustainability movement is starting to become framed in investor language, which is more about money than about the lives of ordinary people.
Q: How do you compare Responsible and Sustainable work culture in different region/countries.
I don’t really make these comparisons ad it is very hard to generalize. I find that multinational corporations tend to have their own culture which forms the core of how they operate wherever they work. Geography is less important that universal principles and values.
Q: What are your suggestions and comments for MSMEs globally?
MSMEs make a significant contribution to the global economy and are often the backbone of national economies around the world. No matter how small, no business is an island and all businesses are part of a larger supply chain. Therefore, MSMEs must keep pace with the changing demands of stakeholders, including the customers in whose supply chains they find themselves, and embrace sustainable practice. The idea is to do this simply but effectively, in ways that make sense for their business as far as possible. Sustainability is not a competition – it’s about doing what you can with what you have to deliver the most positive impacts and minimize the negatives. Each MSME can be accountable and can do so in a simple way that does not place too much of a burden on its limited resources.
Q: Is CSR & Sustainability reporting relevant or non-relevant for them in terms of generating more business.
It’s always difficult to exactly correlate sustainability reporting with generating more business. There is no specific formula. In many cases, ethical conduct and transparency are what can be called “table stakes” – the minimum expectation for a company to get on the map. In other cases, large companies are less demanding of smaller businesses. However, in my view, over the long term, sustainable practice is always an advantage, not only for gaining new business, but also for engaging with other stakeholders. One small business owner I talked with told me how delivering a sustainability report was a major factor in obtaining credit from financial institutions, for example.
Q: Would you like to share some interesting experience and case study of Sustainable Reporting.
That’s a hard one to answer. Every report I work on ( and I support several client reports per year) is a journey in itself, involving months of work and involvement of tens of people in the organization, hundreds of data points and countless stories, and endless hours of writing, editing, reviewing and proofing. The publication of the report is always a celebration, though very soon you realize that it’s already time to start working on the next report 😊. I don’t have a particular story to relate… but one of the things that I always enjoy is the way conversations about CSR and sustainability help change people’s perspectives. If you start a conversation about sustainability, many managers in organizations will say: “this is not connected to my role”. But when you start asking then about what’s important, about the difference that they are making through their work, how they are changing markets, how they are improving processes, how they are empowering people etc., they suddenly realize that their role is all about sustainability. This is part of the journey each company embarks on when they embed sustainable business practices. In reporting, because it touches every department in a company, there is a great opportunity to use the process to cause people to think differently about their role and this is empowering for them.
Q: What is your opinion on Indian CSR market and how do you compare with global trends.
I do not know the Indian market very well, or ifit is even possible to talk about the market as a whole, as I am sure there are differences from region to region. My observations in general are that there is a strong momentum, both from governmental and corporate leadership. The legislation requiring companies to budget CSR probably drives community support more uniformly than voluntary philanthropy and is evidence of social consciousness at government levels. There are some leading lights in sustainability in the Indian corporate landscape, large companies who drive social principles and set standards in the country, bringing their supply chains with them, and therefore having a significant multiplier effect across the market. I believe CSR in India is developing rapidly, embracing technology and becoming more strategic across many dimensions.
Q: What are your views of CSR & Sustainability post Corona times.
I think the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted inconsistencies in our economic systems and inequalities in our societies, as well as opportunities to become more resource efficient in the future. I predict that business travel for example, will never revert to the full scale that it was prior to COVID-19 and that many work-from-home options for employees around the world will remain as far as possible in different companies. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of working populations in different ways, and the lack of economic buffers that exist when a crisis hits. Next time the crisis may be a different one, not necessarily a health-related crisis, and whether global or national, people need to have a certain level of resilience deal with the unexpected. I believe CSR will therefore take on some new areas of focus – risk management and preparedness, employee benefits especially healthcare, wellbeing and family friendly policies, and upgrading technology to enable remote working, supported by new tools to drive a culture that is equal, inclusive and respectful of all individuals. At the same time, the continuing focus on climate change remains a pressing issue, and even if COVID-19 led to a temporary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, global collaboration will still be key to ensure our future generations can thrive.
Watch full recording of “Elaine Cohen’s” Talk/Presentation” with IICSR Session