The latest Vodafone India’s sustainability report was launched with much pomp and fanfare. The news about the launch done by Dr. RK Pachauri, DG, TERI, spread far and wide. The USP, as the press release emphasised, was “continuing the endeavour to consistently raise the bar in reporting on sustainability, this edition of the report has been compiled referencing G4-the most recent guidelines from Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).” This as some media portals stated, made Vodafone India, the first telecom player from India to publish the report based on G4 Guidelines. It was surely a moment of celebration and cheer till, and that is till, you actually visit the Vodafone website, download the report and read it.
Browsing through the 38 odd pages of the PDF, which when compared to a typical “sustainability report” is refreshingly brief, one gets to know a lot about the various social and other programmes the company is running, and other such stuff. But getting to the brass tacks, the real essence or the flavour of sustainability seems to have been marginalised. The report seems more inclined towards being a CSR brochure, than a report on sustainability. In that manner this report is a let-down. In fact, the sustainability report prior to this one last year, which was GRI 3.1, B-Level, was more comprehensive and far more detailed than the current one.
Materiality and G4
To be true, the new GRI G4 guidelines, while may seem a bit complex, are actually very straight-forward and direct-to-the-point. The new guidelines actually add a lot more depth to the materiality aspect, making disclosures a well-thought of exercise. On this front the “Frontiers – III” (name of the report) fails, as it does not follow the pattern of reporting. G4 Reports have a new “In Accordance” system, with two available tracks, Core (basic disclosures) and Comprehensive (advanced). The Vodafone report is not following the system, thus it is actually not “in accordance” to the principle, either core or comprehensive. The report too states that it “has been compiled referencing the Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI) most recent version of guidelines, viz. the G4 Guidelines which is the latest framework launched by the GRI in May 2013.” Thus contrary to what many assume or report, this is not a G4 Report at all, it is using the same principles that G4 reports employ, selectively.
Even so, if one were to disregard the technicalities. There were some serious omissions and frailties in the report. The most important of which was the issue of materiality. The report provides little detail on material aspects or about setting the boundaries, internal or external. Instead what the company has done is created a new framework of 3Es, namely, Empowerment, Education and Environment, which define the ambit of the company’s operations. The new sustainability platform thus created is dubbed as Vodafone Cares, which sounds a tad more CSR centric. The oddity is, in the last report, it was the 5Ps, namely, Pursuits, People, Products, Processes, Partnerships. The change of frameworks in consequent reports disturbs the continuity, and more importantly, the comparability in terms of progress made over last year.
A Few Misses
The report is also silent on very a lot of issues that has engulfed the company over the past year, namely all the tax tangles with the government. And even as it states that customer is an important pillar, there is not much details on how the customers are impacted or adopting the company’s products, say, the impacts of number portability, what is the attrition rate of subscribers, etc. All these details are not really mandatory, but reflect on the company’s credibility, and how it deals with such issues.
Another space, where one could have done with more data was on the Supply Chain side. While the report does mention the reduction of high-risk suppliers and all the other plans, it does not really dwell much on how Vodafone India is monitoring and promoting sustainability initiatives within its supplier community, of which there are some 12000+. While there is indeed a mention of Code of Ethical Purchasing, there is very little detail on how it works or what it entails.
The report also throws up some uncomfortable statistics. For instance, Vodafone India talks loftily about its goals on diversity & inclusion, and its avowed goal to have 30% women workforce in 3 years. Yet, the number of woman employees is a sad 14%, with only 7% in managerial positions. In fact, over last year, even as the number of employees has gone up by 11%, the number of woman employees has actually fallen a single percentage point (1%) from 15% to 14%.
Overall, there seems to be fewer data points than that were last year, for instance there is no single mention of water consumption, while in the earlier report there was much talk of how the consumption was being reduced. Or, for instance there is complete silence on the amount of waste that has been recycled, which was again given weightage in the previous report.
I also have a small issue with the way data has been represented in this report in a couple of places, as it could lead to misleading interpretation. For instance, in the Green Networks section, it is stated that the company deployed hybrid solutions – expanding the base to 2700 sites. Till last year, the solution had been already implemented in 2435 sites, hence this year the actual addition is around 265 more than last year (something the report does not state). Similarly, there is a mention of how 342 of the company’s sites are now powered by variable speed diesel generators. The number last year was 234; hence the actual addition has been 108, instead of 342 that one gets a feeling of.
And then there are the common issues, no mapping of any other reporting framework, no external assurance, etc. But the big howler is, there is no mention as to who is person behind this report, and even while in the GRI content index, the reports states that contact point for questions has been provided (G4-31), you won’t find one on the relevant page.
On the other aspects, namely presentation of data, the report is just above average. While the designers have tried using Paper Quilling motifs as illustrations, the images used are not really top-notch. Even the font and the styling could have been a lot more different, and pleasant to the eye.
In the end, Vodafone India’s latest sustainability report actually seems to be a downer of sorts. Reminds me, of how typical Indian reporting companies were always in the hurry to attain an A+ Level in the earlier framework, at the cost of quality. This one seems to be designed merely to showcase as a G4 Report, and little else. I would have ideally preferred that Vodafone India would have built upon its report last year, say move from B Level to A Level, and importantly gone for an external assurance, thus A+. In the meantime, they should have devoted more time studying the G4 framework, and brought out a report that was “In Accordance” rather than been “referenced” to the principles.
Recently, an Israeli company ECI Telecom had come out with a G4 Report which was “In Accordance” and at Core level. While, it was not very impressive on the design aspect, it is a good example of how the G4 standards need be applied.
And before I forget, the tag for the first Indian telecom player to come out with a G4 Report is still very much for the taking. Hope Airtel and Idea are reading this one.