Monthly Archives: October 2015

Stranded Assets

Stranded Assets

Stranded Assets

Fossil fuel deposits are being called stranded assets. Bankers and investors consider them a high-risk source of energy. What happens when companies continue to make products that really do not have a future in a reduced fossil fuel economy? If they do not plan, companies themselves will face being stranded without viable alternatives.

Countries around the world are coming to grips with how to slow human caused climate change. Future legislation to control carbon emissions will dramatically affect fossil fuel dependent industries. This will not happen overnight, but companies need to prepare for this change.

Can sustainability reporting help? If used properly, it is a major risk management tool. It has to be more than a PR communication. If a company embeds sustainability goals into its mission and strategy, it can look at the longer-term risks facing its operations. If it is dependent on fossil fuels for raw materials or transportation, this is a major risk. Sustainability planning can assist a company as it seeks to make transitions to alternative raw materials or modes of transportation. Recognizing these risks and planning for them can help a company avoid the stranded asset problem.

For this to work, sustainability reporting needs to be transparent and integral to the operations of the business. Otherwise, this valuable tool does little to benefit the company in the long run. VW may have learned this lesson too late in the game. Their diesel engines are not performing as promised; this may well destroy the company. The strategy of making an engine with high environmental and power performance was a great one, but results were not real. Had they reported the actual performance early on, they would have been better positioned to develop alternative options. Now, they are in severe damage control mode. This will be far more costly than if they had scrapped the diesel engine that was too good to be true.

Circular Economy Disruptive Innovation Festival 2015

Flyer DIF2015_Open Mic

We are delighted to contribute to the Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF) 2015, curated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Our session is a two-part event entitled: “Nothing Abandoned: No Place for Rust Belts in the Circular Economy.” Part one is a roundtable discussion, scheduled for October 29th in Indianapolis, with a panel of Midwest sustainability and circular economy professionals. A video recording of part one will be available at the start of the DIF 2015 on November 2nd. During part two on November 13th, 9:00 – 10:00 am EST (14:00 – 15:00 GMT), we will summarize the October 29th discussion and host a live Q&A session.

Please join the DIF 2015 and engage with a global community dedicated to mainstreaming the circular economy.

Our goal is to highlight all the positive actions taken in Indiana and the Midwest to revive this region’s economy along its industrial and farming traditions and competence. We will discuss the opportunities provided by the circular economy framework. Our panel will showcase organizations and activities in the Midwest that represent examples of positive and sustainable transformations in this region.

New Book Available Now!

Sustainability Reporting: Getting Started, 2015 (2nd edition). Gwendolen B. White

Sustainability Reporting: Getting Started, 2015 (2nd edition). Gwendolen B. White

My new book is now available at Business Expert Press! This latest edition presents the rationale for reporting along with a discussion of the major sustainability reporting frameworks such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G4 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, the Integrated Reporting Framework, and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board Standards. You will find detailed examples of the GRI G4 Guidelines from actual company reports such as UPS, Nestle, and Weyerhaeuser, to name a few. These examples show how major companies have applied the GRI guidelines. This book can help get your organization started on its reporting journey.


Idea for Assurance on CSR Reports

An idea for improved sustainability report assurance.

An idea for improved sustainability report assurance.
Photo: Gwen White

In my last blog, I wrote about VWs limited assurance report on its latest sustainability report. I think limited assurance makes sense for sustainability reports after a high level of assurance has occurred. In VW’s case, this high level of assurance never had occurred.

How do we get companies to have their sustainability reports assured at a higher level? I suggest that high level assurance be done every other year with limited assurance to be performed in the years in between. This idea has some parallels to financial statement audits.

Every year public companies publish full financial statements, which are audited once a year. In an audit, considerable testing is performed on the systems that provide the data and the data itself. This testing includes gathering corroborative evidence such as checking calculations, obtaining third party confirmations, inspecting assets, and comparing valuations to external markets.

In the accounting profession, a “review” engagement of financial information is limited assurance and is often done in the interim period between the publication of full financial statements. In the interim period, companies issue financial information but not complete statements. During a review engagement, testing or other corroborative procedures are not done; instead, the auditors make inquiries and flag and research inconsistencies. After these limited procedures, the auditors state that they are not aware of any “material” modifications that should be made to the  interim financial information for it to be in accordance with the relevant accounting principles. “Material” means it is big enough that it would affect your decisions about the company.

To illustrate, this is an example schedule for audits and reviews.

  • Audit, big deal done every year
    • Review, first quarter
    • Review, second quarter
    • Review, third quarter
  • And back to the audit

When these review engagements are done between audits, there is in essence an audit benchmark. During the audit, the data systems and controls have been evaluated; extensive testing has been done. The audit provides reasonable assurance that the information is not misstated in a major way due to errors or fraud. Limited assurance can be done in between audits because the audited financial statements serve as a benchmark upon which to assess subsequent financial information.

This could work for sustainability reports where limited assurance (review engagement) occurs between high level assurance. The costs would be less than doing a high level of assurance every year. As demand for assurance on sustainability reports increases, this would be an important step in achieving higher level assurance.

VW and Assurance

Better Assurance = Fewer Injuries Photo: Michael J White

Better Assurance = Fewer Injuries
Photo: Michael J White

VW cheated and harmed us all. Some of us are more harmed than others. If you own stock, you have seen your net worth decline. If you own one of the affected cars, your troubles are just beginning. If you work for VW, your job may be jeopardy. If you live on the planet, your air is  more polluted.

VW’s story is one of fraud, but why is it so troubling? All frauds are troubling, but VW’s lies seem particularly egregious. VW cast itself as a sustainable company. In their 2014 sustainability report, the company declared the following:

“For the Volkswagen Group, sustainability means that we conduct our business activities on a responsible and long-term basis and do not seek short-term success at the expense of others.”

In the report, they also listed the environmental performance of their specific car models. Many people believed them. In 2014, CDP put VW in its Climate Performance Leadership Index  and in 2015, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) listed VW as the most sustainable automaker. (It has since been delisted by the DJSI.)

Could the fraud have been prevented or detected earlier? Perhaps. I contend that assurance of sustainability reports could make a difference. In audits of financial statements, the auditor’s opinion states whether reasonable assurance has been obtained that the financial statements as a whole are free from material misstatement, whether due to fraud or error. Following professional auditing standards, auditors obtain this reasonable assurance from substantial testing of data systems and underlying information.

Audits do not provide absolute assurance; nothing can. Frauds will occur and have always occurred. Detecting fraud is difficult when multiple people collude to hide it. We can make it harder for them to do.

Was VW’s sustainability report assured? Yes, but it was a “review” or  “limited” assurance. What does limited assurance mean? The procedures were limited to inquiring of key personnel, understanding the company structure, documenting systems, visiting sites, performing data comparisons, and examining internal and external documents. Limited assurance is just that, limited.

If we are going to depend on the information in sustainability reports, we need more than limited assurance. We need “reasonable assurance.” This can be done using procedures similar to that of an audit of financial statements. Will this cost money? Sure, but the fallout from fraud is much more costly for all of us: company, employees, customers, suppliers, and the environment.