Sustainability Reporting – 5 questions for Carol Adams from La Trobe University, Australia

Last week, I had the chance to sit down with Carol Adams, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) at La Trobe University, Australia to speak about the release of their 2010 Sustainability Report Responsible Futures. The Responsible Futures report follows the Global Reporting Initiative‘s sustainability reporting guidelines and is the first university to have a GRI report that is externally assured.

1.    Tell us a little bit about your background and sustainability at La Trobe.

I started as a qualified accountant with KPMG and then moved into teaching. My research focused on social and environmental reporting, and I worked extensively in this area with multinationals. In 2009, I was asked to chair a sustainability task force on top of my role as deputy dean, and then dean of the faculty, because I felt that, not only it was an important issue, but also that La Trobe was the kind of university where it could probably work, because it has a history of a focus on social responsibility and a concern for social issues. So, I agreed to chair the task force (which has since turned into a sustainability management committee), and by the end of the year, we had the agreement from senior managers about the way to move forward. We also have a sustainability advisory board comprised of outside experts who give us good advice and keep us on track.

2. So why sustainability reporting?

Because of my background in this area, I know the value of reporting. Not everyone will read a report, but the process of preparing it, setting targets, defining the key performance indicators with the senior managers, and then reviewing performance against targets is valuable.

The report process was really important in focusing our attention on areas of poor performance. For example, there were two key areas of poor performance highlighted in our report; one was energy consumption and the other was the proportion of women in senior levels of management and, on both of those issues, we have achieved quite a lot in the last few months in terms of a commitment to action and also action itself. The report highlighted the issues and drove change. Collecting the data on energy consumption for the report and having that externally assured was really important in creating the buy in we needed to move forward.

3. What is happening in the area of sustainability reporting with universities?

When we published our report, only 26 other universities had also published reporting using the GRI framework, but ours was the first one to be externally assured. GRI is a network-based organization that produces a comprehensive sustainability reporting framework that is used by a range of organizations around the world, including most large multinational companies. There are many benchmarking exercises for universities around sustainability, but I don’t think they can surpass the GRI process. What does need to be added to the GRI is a way of measuring the core business of universities, – education and research and their impact on sustainability.

I’m on a working group of the United Nations Global Compact developing guidelines for academic institutions in implementing the Ten Principles. It recommends that universities could use the GRI reporting as a way of reporting against GC principles.

4. Any tips for other universities thinking of doing this?

I think this is a really useful tool for other universities. I think that it really does need to be centrally managed. We are linking operational projects with faculty and student research projects, but the overall direction and performance needs to be seen as something that the university is managing.

We looked at a lot of reports, both by universities and from other sectors, to figure out what to report on. Using a report that has already been published as a framework could save other universities a lot of time. Another piece of advice is that it is really important to involve the managers who are concerned with that particular area, so with carbon emissions, speak those responsible for your transport fleet and people responsible for operations and electricity measurement systems and buildings. All players really need to be involved in the process because, if it is done without their involvement, it is not going to get embedded.

5. Will you do it again?

We will continue to do it as long as we have resources allocated to do it, because it really does focus attention on what is important and what is not. It will help us reduce costs associated with, for example, energy, travel, paper use, etc. I think it will become easier and less resource intensive as we move forward. We are also very proud of our report and just recently won two awards for it, the Association of Chartered Account’s (ACCA) ‘Best first time report’ in Sydney this year and the Continuous Improvement – Institutional Change’ award at the 2011 Green Gown Australia awards in Adelaide for our centralized approach to sustainability governance and management.

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