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CSR Leaders

In The Lead: CSR Success Stories featuring Elaine Cohen – Part 1

Welcome! Over the last few months, we’ve interacted with thousands of dynamic CSR professionals, aficionados, academics and consultants. Now, it’s time to share the knowledge. We have launched – “In The Lead: CSR Success Stories” – to share breakthrough CSR success stories, tips and solutions with the global CSR community. Our objective is to bring together the best-of-the-best and inspire real CSR solutions. Each month we will interview the most dynamic CSR experts and showcase their stories and insights. We’re looking for the best to give us their best.

Elaine Cohen (Dr. Sustainability) – A CSR Reporting Leader

That’s why we’re especially thrilled to interview Elaine Cohen. Considered a global CSR expert, Elaine is passionate about Sustainability reporting, social justice, and Sustainability. She is the co-founder and managing consultant of Beyond Business Ltd, a CSR consulting and Sustainability reporting firm, serving a long list of international companies and non-profit clients. She writes a blog on CSR reporting, editorials for, provides expert CSR report reviews for, tweets on CSR topics at @elainecohen and has specialist knowledge of ethics, diversity, advancement of women, stakeholder engagement, responsible workplace and use of social media for CSR communications.

We recently sat down with Elaine to find out more about what makes her tick and why she’s so inspired and passionate about CSR…and ice cream.

How did you get started in CSR?

During my time with Unilever here in Israel, I headed up the Human Resources Division. Unilever was well known globally for its Corporate Responsibility efforts. Although there were very few global guidelines, there was a Code of Business Conduct, which we had to implement at the local level. I was very much involved in the management of the business as a member of the senior Management Team. But, the more I did my job in Human Resources, the more I became aware of what Unilever was doing around the world in CSR. I started to learn about CSR and understand it. I developed a CSR programme that we rolled out locally in Unilever in Israel. In 2005, I spent 6 months doing a focused strategic CR project for Unilever. In 2005, I left Unilever and started my own business consulting in CSR.

Talk to us about your blog and the network you built just from communicating your knowledge and passion. What makes you take on this topic and engage so many people and organizations around CSR?

I started with one blog almost 4 years ago and that was my CSR Reporting blog (I now have three blogs). When you are in the CSR business, it’s because you have a passion for making a difference in the world, for finding your way to have an impact.  My impact is about the way business gets done and helping companies to do their business in a way that contributes to a more sustainable world. When I left Unilever and started up my own business, it was to devote myself to that passion. My business is not my job. It is a big part of my life. It is what I am thinking about all the time. I get many fellow bloggers and consultants talking with me, sharing stuff, many students asking for assistance, and, of course, I get businesses coming back to me on things that I have written, particularly, if I have reviewed a Sustainability Report.

How do you make CSR more engaging for the non-engaged? In your Top Ten Tips for Sustainable Reporting, you advised CSR Managers to “have some fun” with reports. Talk to us about some of the CSR engagement best practices? We would love to hear some examples.

One way to make the report come alive is by introducing personal elements. For example, a best practice is to feature people in the report – highlighting real individuals giving their personal perspective and opinions. People who read Sustainability Reports are looking to understand the personality and the spirit of the company and the way it empowers its employees in the process. Engaging reports usually profile employees, include photos, personal stories, case studies – things that show how employees have been involved in the CSR efforts. Reports can also showcase the way employees have made a sustainable change, and can include personal views from employees about aspects of CSR. These are the things that make the reports so much more interesting and engaging. In fact, with engaging reports, readers may go straight to the personal stories before they actually start reading the report narrative. Last year, I reviewed a report that was entirely video based (from Burt’s Bees) – it has about 10 chapters of videos. Employees introduced their Sustainability story through videos.

Virgin has also done something similar using video to highlight employees’ achievements in CSR. Even if you don’t use a multimedia approach, you can feature employees in a printed document. One of the best is a small company, a delight of a company called Impahla Clothing in South Africa.  They only have about 50 to 100 employees. In one of their recent Sustainability Reports, every single employee was featured with a photograph and a quote or story. You can do that if you are a small business, but you can’t if you are a 200,000-person corporation.  With larger businesses, you have to be more selective in adding the voice of employees. Ultimately, they are the people that are making the business.

What’s interesting is your writing style and your ability to introduce some humor into what can be at times a rather dry topic. How do you effectively do that and balance that when talking about a serious topic?

I add humor because that is part of my personality. It is very hard to argue with someone when they are laughing or smiling. I do – in a very active, considered way – introduce humor in my writings. As you may have seen, I often send out a post which is entirely a joke. For example, Dr. Sustainability is a series that I come back to every 2 or 3 months and I ask her CSR-relevant questions and try to develop amusing answers. People love it and I get a lot of feedback on it. It is just a bit of fun. It is a way to communicate about a serious and, dare I say it, sometimes boring subject. Sustainability is not most people’s favourite topic, so this is a way to lighten it up.  I also have my sub-theme which is ice cream. Over the years, ice cream has become a sub-theme for my blog, including a rating system for reports based on ice-cream cones. People now know my addiction to ice-cream and this has become a point of connection. I even had a fellow CSR consultant from Europe who wanted to send me ice cream from Italy!

a venue for CSR leaders to network and share best practices