Business schools and universities around the world have been putting together their sustainability efforts into comprehensive sustainability reports. These reports provide the opportunity to engage the school community, provide an overview of activities and serve asa baseline for future activities.
Schools themselves take a variety of approaches as to how they organize their reports. One of the most popular report structures in the business sector is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI); however, this approach is not taken as often with business schools and educational institutions. The University of Brussels (HUB) has recently released a GRI report, the first in Belgium and one of only a handful around the world. I had the chance to speak with Talia Stough and Kim Ceulemans about their experiences.
1. Describe how you went about putting together your report?
We have made use of the AISHE audit for two of our degree programmes in the past few years to measure how well sustainability has been integrated into certain degree programs within the Faculty of Economics and Management. Since some aspects, like environment management, are applicable to the entire institution, the feedback from the audit aimed to improve the integration of sustainability within the entire institution. As a result, two priorities were identified for HUB—1) communication; and 2) internal environmental management.
In order to better communicate internally and externally about sustainability initiatives of the Faculty, we decided to work towards a sustainability report. When defining the scope of report, it soon became clear that a sustainability report for only the Faculty was not the best approach, as environmental, social, and economic factors of an institution cannot be easily divided amongst departments. So the preparation of the report was to be overseen by the Faculty with the support of, and in coordination with, other departments.
The process of collecting data was time consuming, and explaining why certain information was important to include in a “sustainability” report was not always easy. Some information was easy to collect, as it is required to be reported (e.g. economic information). Other information was available, but required organization and/or processing (e.g. percentage of materials recycled, parental leave), other information was just not available (e.g. diversity of employees). As there are not yet GRI indicators for education, we chose to highlight a few major initiatives from the faculty in our first report (2011) and referred to AISHE indicators where applicable. In 2012, we invited all other educational departments/faculties to contribute text on how they integrate sustainability into their educational programs.
2. Why did Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel decide to use the GRI framework?
We chose to use the GRI framework because of its comprehensiveness and status. Although we used the AISHE indicators for education in the Faculty, we found that AISHE’s approach to operational sustainability was limited. The GRI is not a perfect tool for an educational institution because it lacks specific indicators for our core business, but applying any framework requires an institution to adapt the tool for their specific case.
The GRI is also interesting for the Faculty because we teach this tool in our CSR management courses (along with ISO series and other similar tools). By using GRI, we can use our report as a hands-on learning tool in the classroom and bridge the gap between operations and education which higher education institutions often struggle with.
The HUB is the first Belgian higher education institution to have produced a GRI sustainability report. Various factors may have helped contribute to this- the size of the institution, the Faculty’s emphasis on practical business orientation, the fact we have a Sustainability Coordinator position to oversee large projects. However, it is still a major accomplishment to be the first. We hope to inspire other higher education institutions to do similar initiatives. In fact, we have already heard from other universities, colleges, and business schools that they were inspired after reading our report and are currently trying to take steps to produce their own report.
3. You mentioned that you had students critique past reports, could you explain this a bit more?
We are constantly revising our reporting process to involve students in different ways.
HUB‘s first sustainability report was used in the Sustainable Management course of the Master of Environment, Health, and Safety and the CSR course of the Master of Business Administration. The students were asked to examine the indicators HUB chose to report on in the initial report, and analyze:
1) How HUB‘s list of indicators compare to other higher education institutions lists of chosen indicators;
2) How HUB reports on its indicators versus what the GRI Protocol for reporting suggests.
Examples of feedback we received from students include: lack of reporting of diversity in employees; energy well reported on; HUB report should include air quality concerns as it effects the health of students and staff members.
This activity not only familiarizes the students with the GRI methodology and HUB‘s own process of reporting, but it gives the preparers of the report insight into how the report is read and internalized by students.
4. How has the report been received? Has it been a useful tool internally?
The report has been received well, but remains unknown for many students and staff members. The reporting process has been exceedingly good at organizing people who impact sustainability indicators (head of logistics departments, head of ICT, environmental coordinator, etc.). Because of the reporting process, regular meetings occurred between some of these parties and continue to occur with the future goal of improving our environmental management system.
The report was also very useful during visitations for program accreditation within the faculty. The report served as an organized all-in source for how the Faculty, research centers, and the whole of HUB approaches sustainability. A critique of the GRI framework in this context is that the report did not contain sufficient information about exactly how, and to what extent, sustainability is integrated in curricula—the report was too narrative for the education section.
The report is also very helpful for students who would like to do project work (master thesis, environmental coordinator projects, etc.) about sustainability or environmental issues at HUB. The report provides a nice overview of the journey thus far and our desired future direction. Students can better see the bigger picture and how their project will fit into that.
5. What advice do you have for others preparing their reports?
Be flexible and patient. It can be extremely frustrating when you cannot get a hold of the information you want, but be patient and accept that you won’t ever get all the information. But if you get some, you can add to it the next year—people get used to providing you information and you know where to go for information next time around. To prepare a perfect report requires a perfect internal organization of an institution, but let’s just admit that is not the situation for most institutions—especially higher education. You are only as strong as your weakest department, and although the process of reporting should encourage a better performance, it’s difficult to report if departments, people, information is not organized and accessible. It’s better to achieve something than get discouraged and quit trying to achieve perfection.
6. What’s next for Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel?
The HUB is working on improving its environmental management—the second feedback from the AISHE audit in 2010. We are working with the local government of Brussels to become an “Ecodynamic” institution. The region of Brussels has developed a sort of ISO-14001 system with three levels of certification.
Within our research centre, CEDON (Centre for Economics and Corporate Sustainability), we are actively involved in research on education for sustainable development. More specifically, we have a PhD candidate contributing to improving research on sustainability reporting in higher education institutions. It is the intention to use the results of this work to improve our own reporting at HUB (e.g. improving reporting on core business, our stakeholder engagement, and our management approach).