Assurance and Stakeholder Panels – All the same to Millipore?

As GRI improves the market’s appreciation for sustainability reporting, the understanding of assurance seems to be tailing behind. Or how do you feel about Millipore’s use of term “assurance” and “B+” declaration?

I am a fan of Millipore’s sustainability reporting. I used their 2008 Sustainability Report, which was their first GRI-type report, in GRI-certified training events. I like to use Millipore’s and other “C-level” reports in preference to the “usual suspect” A-level reports. It helps to showcase how “reporting virgins” can produce meaningful reports which address many material issues regardless of their GRI Application Levels.

So, I recently opened Millipore’s 2009 sustainability report (summary pdf version) with lots of interest. I noted that it had been declared to adhere to GRI’s “B+” Application Level. The “+” caught my attention. This seemed like a big jump: from a first-time reporter to one that has completed an assurance process in the second reporting cycle. Wow – a proper assurance process is not for the faint-hearted!

So given recent experience about use of the term “assurance “in Scotiabank’s recent sustainability report (see my blog post: Chuckles courtesy of Scotiabank and CBSR), I decided to take a closer look at the assurance aspect of Millipore’s report, which I would like to share with you and invite your comments. Millipore’s pdf report contains the following note (all red highlights added by yours truly):

Assurance

For our initial approach to assurance, which we did not seek for the 2008 report, we sought input from our Sustainability Stakeholder Advisory Group. The group provided a statement based on its reviews of the report and discussions with Millipore’s core sustainability team and CEO. We have published this statement online, along with our response. This limited assurance approach—and the recommendations it has provided—will help us strengthen our reporting process, foster stronger relationships with key stakeholders, and ultimately support improvements in our sustainability performance.”

This web-link  takes the reader to Millipore's on-line report. Under the “Assurance” tab Millipore notes that

We did not ask the advisory group to provide a formal statement regarding the reliability or accuracy of our data or data collection systems, nor did members review calculations made during the course of our data analysis. However, the group did provide a statement based on its review of the draft report, as well as discussions with Millipore’s core sustainability team members and CEO. You may read the stakeholder group’s Assurance Statement, as well as Millipore's response.

We asked this group to use the AccountAbility 1000 Assurance Principles Standard as a general framework in reviewing our report, focusing on the principles of inclusivity, materiality, and responsiveness.” 

Reading the “Statement from the Sustainability Stakeholder Advisory Group” [I listed the members further below – and note the term “Assurance” was left out in this title], I note that they specifically highlighted the following in a preamble of their statement:

We discussed, but did not evaluate in detail, the effectiveness of internal processes and plans for improvement. We provided feedback on Millipore’s overall sustainability vision. We did not assess the reliability or accuracy of Millipore’s data, nor did we check calculations. We also were not asked to assess actual sustainability performance, just the way in which that performance is being communicated.”

Looking at all of the above, should Millipore perhaps ditch the term “Assurance” and replace with “Stakeholder Panel Opinion” or similar? Does attaching the term “Assurance” to the statement produced by Millipore’s Sustainability Stakeholder Panel sit comfortably with its members? Also, how do you feel about Millipore declaring their report to include a "+”?   

PS: Using an external sustainability stakeholder panel is commendable. Millipore Sustainability Stakeholder Advisory Group comprised of the following: Greg Andeck, Environmental Defense Fund; Rob Currie, Baxter Healthcare Corporation; Katie Excoffier, Genentech, Inc.; Ken Pruitt, Environmental League of Massachusetts; and Sarah Slaughter, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

PPS: You may also be interested in my blogs entitled: Stakeholder Panels for Sustainability Reporting

5 Comments to Assurance and Stakeholder Panels – All the same to Millipore?

  1. Liz Crosbie, Managing Director at Strategic Environmental Consulting, Technical Advisor Forest Footprint Disclosure Project, UK posted this note on my related LinkedIn post:

    “The “confusion” over quality of assurance is a direct result of the lack of perceived value of CSR Reporting, as many reports are now a broadcast communication in search of an audience. I believe that until companies can see real business value in the reporting process, so it is on par with the known value of financial reporting, they will restrict the costs yet still try to achieve compliance with third party standardised frameworks. Good assurance verification costs money to do plain and simple and few have the budgets available to afford it. So until either an agreed methodology or sample regime is mandatory to GRI, and other frameworks, assurance will continue to be cloak and mirrors to obscure the lack of budget given to achieve ‘assurance’ assessments. For many in the industry we are accutely aware of how loose reporting verification actually is in practice and how little real evaluation CSR reports receive from the key stakeholders they seek to impress. But the industry is stuck with the devil of a dilemma. Do you do something less than perfect with the available monies or nothing which has to be worse.? We need ESG to be real factor in financial modelling and only then will the quality of verification matter to the bottom line.”

  2. Many thanks for your comments, Aleksandra and Liz. Yes, it was good to see that CBSR is also a “listening organization” and I note the challenge of demonstrating (harvesting?) the value of reporting which influences reporting and assurance quality. My take: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good – but to the professionals in this field – including those dealing primarily with PR – let us all try a bit harder and keep within the spirit of the frameworks. Although – no doubt – I have done my fair share of mistakes, I don’t find the definitions and commonly accepted good practice all that confusing. Although it is more fun to hand out awards to winners and have a celebratory drink afterwards, perhaps it would also be useful to bring more rigor to this field and raise the cost of taking too many liberties with accepted good practice.

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