Wesfarmers responds to the shift in ‘ownership’

RETURNS to shareholders, once considered the benchmark against which company directors’ decisions were measured, now share a space with non-financial standards for community and environmental stakeholders.

Wesfarmers Limited, one of the first companies to recognise the shift in company “ownership”, has just released its fourth and most comprehensive report covering environmental, safety and health performance in all of its seven business units.

Wesfarmers managing director Michael Chaney said the 2001 progress report continued the commitment to providing detailed non-financial aspects of the WA company’s activities.

“This report is our response to the heightened, and welcome, community interest in issues which, until recently, received little attention in the public reporting processes of business,” Mr Chaney said.

Wesfarmers public affairs general manager Keith Kessell said the report cost about $75,000 to compile, print and distribute and externally verify– without taking into account time spent internally on the project. About 6,500 copies of the report have been published, with the majority targeted at employees as well as the media, politicians and interest groups.

The environmental report was the first independently verified report undertaken in the Perth offices of auditors the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation. It incorporates many of the changes recommended by SMEC in its detailed report to Wesfarmers’ management last year.

SMEC environmental scientist Natalie Sing, who spent more than two months working on the Wesfarmers report, said a five-year improvement performance reporting plan had been drawn up last year, which was directed toward eventual triple bottom line reporting.

Triple bottom line reporting incorporates social, environmental and financial considerations into reporting practices.

Ms Sing said initial financial information that would be included in the triple bottom line methodology would include the cost involved in meeting social and environmental targets.

“Public environmental reporting is certainly a growing field and more and more companies will be looking to reporting on their environmental progress,” she said.

Before the Wesfarmers report gets external verification, it first undergoes a series of internal reviews.

Ms Sing said each business unit first compiled its own report with the aid of the environmental and occupational health and safety officers. This then was looked over by the Wesfarmers corporate and legal teams before being audited externally. Every sentence in the draft internal environmental, health and safety report was carefully cross referenced with the original environmental or health and safety document, to make it verifiable.

If things can’t be proved, the report is changed.

“If something is unverifiable it can just be talked over and reworded into a statement that we can verify. Or they can remove it totally from the report,” Ms Sing said.

“Those things that are unverifiable are usually quite subjective statements.”

She said an example was a claim by a company that the company has improved community relations. This may not be verifiable or backed up with facts so the reference to that would have to be re-worded or removed from the report before it can be verified.

Mr Kessell said that, while the cost of producing the report was high, it was money well spent, even though there was no way to quantify or gauge the benefit of producing the report.

“We don’t believe the money is at all wasted. It indicates that we are prepared to be open and accountable. We think our reputation is everything and believe this will only enhance it,” he said.


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Wesfarmers (WES)

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