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March 31, 2004
Wisconsin Energy Reaps External and Internal Benefits from Social and Environmental Reporting
    by William Baue

Wisconsin Energy won accolades for its Global Reporting Initiative-based report, which also raised internal awareness of social and environmental performance.


It is readily apparent why stakeholders appreciate corporate reporting of social and environmental performance based on Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines. Among other things, GRI is very comprehensive. Some companies, however, have yet to understand the value of social and environmental reporting, much less through such an expansive platform as GRI.

The benefits of sustainability reporting became evident to Wisconsin Energy (ticker: WEC), a Milwaukee-based Fortune 500 energy holding company, at the prompting of stakeholders.

"In the late 1990's, we started to receive an increasing number of requests from stakeholders for detailed information regarding social and environmental performance, as well as financial performance," said Richard A. Abdoo, Chairman and CEO of Wisconsin Energy. "Many of these requests came in the form of very lengthy surveys, which took literally hours to complete."

"We started looking for some mechanism for reporting that was most widely accepted, so that we would be able to refer stakeholders to one report that was user friendly and complete," he added. "It was in this way that we came across the Global Reporting Initiative."

Much of the data required by GRI was already being gathered for internal use or for reporting to external agencies. However, the information was not consolidated in one place, and doing so proved challenging.

"Sometimes information is readily accessible and visible--other times it sits on someone's spreadsheet in a private file," Mr. Abdoo told SocialFunds.com. "Data collection, alignment and verification can require significant effort."

"As we started assembling the material to conform to the GRI principles, however, we began to see a much greater value in this sort of report," Mr. Abdoo continued.

The report, which discloses not only social and environmental but also economic performance, has proven valuable for disseminating this information far and wide. Since its December 2002 publication, the Wisconsin Energy Performance Report Website has received over 300,000 hits from more than 12,000 unique visitors.

The 2001 performance report gained recognition by winning the 2002 Sustainability Reporting Award from the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) for Outstanding First Time Reporting. The 2002 performance report made the shortlist for the 2003 Sustainability awards, which will be announced at the April 2004 CERES Annual Conference.

While the report proved valuable for external communication of the company's sustainability commitments, internal communication was a different story, at least to begin with.

"Internally, our first Performance Report was not widely read by employees," said Mr. Abdoo.

In 2003, the company intensified its internal communication efforts through meetings with employee groups to increase awareness of the purpose and findings of the report. This outreach effort increased employee interest.

"The most common reaction, often from long tenure employees, was 'I didnít know we did that' or 'that's really cool!'" said Mr. Abdoo. "The report has worked as a way to sustain and improve performance, and prioritize where to focus our improvement efforts."

The report team identified some specific performance improvement opportunities. For example, at We Energies and Edison Sault Electric (utility subsidiaries) employee safety performance fell below expectations. In 2004, improvement targets were set across the entire organization.

"Ultimately, the report has proven to be very useful for internal purposes, goal setting, and even recruitment of employees," said Mr. Abdoo.

What does the future hold for the report? As it stands, the report is "too lengthy," according to Mr. Abdoo.

"We would like to streamline it and show better linkages to other Websites," said Mr. Abdoo. "We will work with the GRI to better define reporting boundaries and practices for electric utilities to more accurately/appropriately report performance."

"We also will openly and regularly communicate with our customers, shareholders, employees, and other key constituents, and seek their feedback on our progress," he concluded.

 

 
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