“First Movers” Use Materiality Analysis to Link Sustainability, Supply Chain Management & CSR

25 Jan

By Dave R. Meyer (SEEDS Global Alliance)

Note:  this is the second of a three-part series exploring “materiality” and  the intersection of supply chain management, sustainability and  corporate social responsibility.

My first post in this series suggested that there was an intersection or cross-walk between sustainability, corporate environmental responsibility and supply chain management.  This “sweet spot” can be found in conducting “materiality” analyses.  Although the concept of materiality in the finance sector has a long track record in accounting circles, its application in the sustainability space is much newer.  Whereas financial reporting has taken a more short-term view and approach to handling performance and risk, sustainability generally factors in a much longer, strategic planning and implementation horizon.

Businesses have learned that in a world that has grown more transparent, they need to clearly identify what is material to their operations and stakeholders, and communicate this in trustworthy and convincing ways in order to drive creativity and innovation.  Materiality determination is a lot like the aspects and impacts analysis that is common to ISO 14001 based Environmental Management Systems.  ISO 14001 seeks to identify those elements of their activities, processes, services and products that have the greatest impact on the environment.  Materiality analysis does not only that but dives deeper into operations and stakeholder issues.  Let’s take a moment to explore materiality’s origins in the sustainability space.

Roots of Materiality in Sustainability Reporting

In 2003, The UK- based think tank, AccountAbility developed the  AA1100 Standard.   AA1000AS (2008) assurance provides a “comprehensive way of holding an organization to account for its management, performance and reporting on sustainability issues by evaluating the adherence of an organization to the AccountAbility Principles and the reliability of associated performance information. It also provides a platform to align the non-financial aspects of sustainability with financial reporting and assurance through its understanding of materiality”.    The framework for a materiality assessment is depicted in the adjoining graphic, jointly developed by AccountAbility, BT Group Plc and LRQA (The Materiality Report- Aligning Strategy, Performance and Reporting- November 2006).

The AA1100 Standard was revised in 2008.  In it, the AA1000 Materiality Principle requires that the “Assurance Provider states whether the Reporting Organization has included in the Report the information about its Sustainability Performance required by its Stakeholders for them to be able to make informed judgments, decisions and actions.”  Materiality norms taken into account by this standard are:

(a) Compliance performance (considering those aspects of non-financial performance where a significant legal, regulatory or direct financial impact exists).

(b) Policy-related performance (considering identification of aspects of performance linked to stated policy positions, financial consequences aside).

(c) Peer-based norms (considering how company’s peers and competitors address the same issues, irrespective of whether the company itself has a related policy or whether financial consequences can be demonstrated; and

(d) Stakeholder-based materiality (taking into account stakeholder behaviors and perceptions).

The Global Reporting Initiative has developed a framework for materiality determination as part of the G3 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines The GRI considers materiality as “ the threshold at which an issue or indicator becomes sufficiently important that it should be reported.”  The GRI defined a series of internal and external criteria to be considered when performing a materiality analysis.  Later in 2009, the GRI convened a to evaluate and create more specific guidance for determining materiality.  The draft content recognized that materiality analysis was one of the “least systematized aspects of reporting”:

“Identification of material issues and boundaries are core challenges for any standard risk assessment process. Despite the importance of these challenges to good reporting processes, they represent the most difficult and underdeveloped areas for most companies.” – Draft Report Content and Materiality Protocol, page 2.

The draft Report Content and Materiality Protocol review period closed last fall and is in review at this time.

Materiality “First Movers”

A number of companies have taken a “first mover” position in documenting materiality in their corporate sustainability reports.  Most have used a format similar in scope and criteria as the GRI or AA1100 frameworks, with some modifications.  Companies that have reported on materiality and that reach out to stakeholders what they find to be material to their interest and have some “reasonable control” over include companies from diverse manufacturing sectors such as automotive (Ford[1], BMW, Volvo), communications (BT), energy development (Exxon, Mobil) pharmaceuticals (Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson), electronics and control Systems (Cisco, GE, Omron), consumer products (Gap, Starbucks) and mining (Holcim, Rio Tinto), among many others.  One such company is Danisco A/S.

I recently had the opportunity to visit with Mr. Jeffrey Hogue (@jeffreyhogue) of Danisco.  Mr. Hogue is Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Global Leader at Danisco A/S.  Danisco is a worldwide manufacturer of food and beverage products, including cultures, emulsifiers, gums & systems and natural sweeteners.  The company does business with the world’s largest food manufacturers.  Daniscos’ 2009/2010 Sustainability Report is extremely comprehensive and has been awarded some of the highest honors for corporate social responsibility reporting in the past year.  The company looked deeply into materiality issues in its report and has developed  strong operational programs to manage its supply chain in a proactive manner.  It’s web site indicates that they have developed and implemented a “new supplier management system…to strengthen our global supplier and material assessment programme through better audit portfolio management tools, detailed assessments, prioritised audits and improved collection of supplier and raw material data.”

Danisco catalogued and assessed stakeholder input from a variety of internal and external surveys and other sources, then indexed them according to their impact on its business. Issues emerging from the data were ranked according to their impact on the business and the degree of importance to stakeholders, forming the basis for the Materiality Matrix (see Figure 1 below).  The company strategically decided to address sustainability risks and opportunities identified as having “medium-to-high impact” on its business and being of “medium-to-high” interest to our stakeholders.


I asked Jeff if he could shed some insight on the company determined materiality and its resulting high ranking for supply chain (criteria, indicators etc).  I also asked Jeff if he’d share his thoughts on the critical nature of supply chain management relative to triple bottom line based materiality (as well as risk management).

“I think that there are three dimensions of this subject and why our supply chain is very important to our success.


Risk reduction – With a supplier base of over 3000 key suppliers it is crucial for us to manage any risk that may be present in our upstream value chain to eliminate the impact on our operations and our customers.  Therefore it is a baseline requirement that we scrutinize our supply chain and develop robust and systematic programmes to address and mitigate risk. Most of our customers expect it — and although it is in a lot of ways a compliance programme, we do derive value in knowing that we will maintain consistent raw material quality, avoid issues related to labor and human rights, and supply security.  We also have the ability to anticipate and mitigate other sustainability related endpoints like the impacts on agricultural raw materials from climate change, water scarcity, regulation, etc.

Opportunity harvesting – We also see the need to understand the potential synergies between our organization and our suppliers.  In many cases we do this to provide shared value in terms of capacity and livelihood building for our suppliers alongside our need for more secure raw material sources.  We often do this on a case by case basis — mainly on a regional level where it makes sense

Value chain pressures and expectations – We are experiencing a world where retailers and our largest customers see these issues in the light of their entire value chain and are actively seeking ways to reduce their indirect impacts.  This of course is cascaded down their supply chains through our organization to our suppliers.  We also see a tremendous opportunity in this area to be first movers and to act now based on how the retailers are moving.  This will put us in a position where we can be proactive and are faster to respond to value chain pressures.”

Materiality in CSR Reports of the Future

I also had the pleasure of several e-mail exchanges with Ms. Elaine Cohen (@elainecohen).  Elaine is a well known CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional (and self-avowed ice cream addict).  She’s  the Founding partner at BeyondBusiness Ltd (www.b-yond.biz/en) and consults to companies on CSR strategy, processes and sustainability communications. I asked Elaine what trends she has seen in CSR reporting these past few years where supply chain has been classified as having “high materiality” to a company’s operations and to their stakeholders.

“I believe supply chains have been becoming increasingly more important over the past few years, as the effects of inadequate supply chain accountability are more and more visible in our market place. We can split these issues broadly into two: the human rights issues in supply chains and the sourcing issues in supply chains.  The HR issues surfaced mainly with the apparel issues in the late 90’s. But the last five years have been characterized by significantly greater transparency  due to the spread of the internet and ease of access to information.”

“… Additionally, I believe the increasing focus on Human Rights and the work of John Ruggie [Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Business & Human Rights], have been clear about squarely placing the responsibility for clean supply chains on the manufacturer. There is almost nothing more material for apparel suppliers than human rights in their supply chains – just take a look at some of their Sustainability reports. Regarding sourcing, this has also become a major issue – Starbucks and Ethiopian coffee farmers, Unilever and others in palm oil issues, Nestle and the Greenpeace KitKat campaign . Manufacturers are getting clearer that sourcing decisions are now much more visible than in the past, and much more risky. So for these companies, raw materials sourcing is most definitely high materiality. Sustainability reports are reflecting these trends and the space allocated to human rights, responsible sourcing and factory auditing is significantly greater that it was some years ago.”

Trending forward in 2011, I asked Elaine to read the tea leaves on supply chain management, CSR and materiality.

“I believe these issues will continue to maintain high-profile and ultimately move towards cross sector alliances to resolve issues that affect all players in a sector such as the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil , work done by the apparel sector and the electronics industry  to determine common standards. We might see multi-company collaboration on third-party factory inspection and evaluation. We might see a set of industry wide agreements on core issues….countries such as China and India are also aware of risks, and greater legislation and enforcement in these countries may help resolve some issues.

Takeaways on Materiality in the Supply Chain.

Jeff related to me that a key NGO with a critical stake in Daniscos’ supply chain affairs remarked that supply chain management and sustainability go hand in hand and is basically a foundational aspect of business operations and risk management.   The challenge, according to Jeff, is in finding the “shared value proposition” that is often difficult to achieve, especially across multiple layers of an often globally distributed supply chain.  Finding localized suppliers and establishing multi-stakeholder collaborations hold promise as models where stakeholder interests and large-scale products manufacturers can find the needed common ground to advance supply chain sustainability.

Elaine summed up our dialogue with the following suggestions: “For manufacturers, don’t underestimate the importance of high-quality supply chain management – get it right before it gets you right, learn from the mistakes of others, think of supply chain management as a core business issue which goes to the heart of strategy and brand decisions, not just something that is tacked on to a new project as a deliverable…In terms of materiality, make sure you “engage, engage, engage” at [the] local level with a wide range of stakeholders, so that you are not demanding deliverables which are not reasonably  feasible. Report transparently on all aspects of supply chain because, if nothing else, this will assist in identifying hidden costs and areas of potential risk.”

Thanks Elaine! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll lay out the business case for materiality assessments to strengthen supply chain management and a straightforward framework for materiality analysis.


[1] Ford’s 2008/09 Sustainability Report includes an interactive materiality matrix that categorizes issues based on two dimensions: the degree of stakeholder concern and the extent of the current or potential impact on the company.

2 Responses to ““First Movers” Use Materiality Analysis to Link Sustainability, Supply Chain Management & CSR”

  1. Mickey April 2, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

    Dave thanks much on your information on Materiality! Have you posted the 3rd part in this series yet and if not when do you anticipate doing so?

    Thanks for the body of work so far

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