7 October 2015

Are today’s Corporate Responsibility Reports still trustworthy?

Since reports of Volkwagen’s (VW) diesel emission cheat software first hit the headlines, public outrage has begun to wane. Consumers are known to be unforgiving towards corporate malpractice, but corporate history shows that consumers also tend to forget very quickly. Their concern over Volkwagen has now mainly turned to confirming whether or not their car has this cheat software installed, considering whether legal is an option and understanding the impact of disabling the software on their car’s power output.
Although VW’s new chairman Hans Dieter Poetsch called the scandal an existence-threatening crisis for the company and investors shunned the VW stock, wiping out an estimated $34 billion in value, I don’t think this will be the end for VW. A company such as VW is too big to fail. So then, what should we learn from this?
VW’s cheat software case reaches far beyond today’s concerns about financial impact, business ethics and customer confidence. Rather, it is about the most precious resource for future generations: our environment. While the European Commission prepares for the publication of its circular economy package, expected by the end of the year, the real question we should ask ourselves is: how can any global, European or even local company still be trusted for the accuracy of its environmental performance claims, let alone the credibility of any critically innovative materials and production processes that come out of its R&D pipeline?
This brings me to advocating for what I would call Corporate Responsibility 2 (CR.2): a complete overhaul of what we currently refer to as “Corporate Responsibility”. It is high time to rethink the concept and bring it closer to what it should be. Companies and their CEOs who can claim that they care for society, take responsibility for the environment and are committed to consumer safety based on verifiable proof points will remain the only ones who can look their stakeholders in the eyes without blinking.
If companies really want to show that they have learned something from the VW case, I challenge them to embrace something like CR.2 and focus on responsible behaviour, accountable values and operationalised respect for the environment. These companies must walk the talk and talk the walk in a way that is obvious to their stakeholders. Against that context, today’s overly rated corporate responsibility report will and should have a fundamentally different purpose.

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