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It is not only politicians who want to be seen as greener than thou. This week Anna Ford, just-retired high profile newsreader from the BBC, has been recruited as a director for J Sainsbury, the UK supermarket chain. Sainsbury’s chairman said she would take particular interest in corporate social responsibility. By no coincidence at all, Sainsbury’s great rival Tesco announced last week that it would spend £100m on greener energy sources. ‘The emphasis on CSR has been stoked by the prospect of another competition inquiry,’ this newspaper commented – all of which prompted me to see how the big retailers were presenting themselves as green, friendly and generally fluffy on the web.

The web is even more important than newsreaders in the area of social responsibility. Whether a company is trying to provide data on waste, to explain how friendly it is to the community, or to lay out its policy on child labour, it cannot do so in sound bites – it needs space, and a website has more space than any other channel.

Tesco and Sainsbury both understand this, though having looked at their sites I fear they may also believe CSR is a sub-division of marketing. What surprised me more than this is the variation, and in places lack of interest, I found as I wandered round other giant retailers’ websites.

The Sainsbury (www.jsainsbury.com) and Tesco (www.tescocorporate.com) approaches to CSR are very similar. They both produce a Corporate Responsibility report, they turn it into a website – then they create another social responsibility website that has much of the same material. There are other signs that the sites are not well controlled. Tesco makes you jump in and out of the responsibility section to look at case studies, while Sainsbury puts unrelated news releases in its CSR area. It is all very enthusiastic but a bit confusing.

Enthusiasm does not stop much of the content being boring, sadly. Statements of policy and principle may be important, but they are oh-so- dull, and CSR breeds them with vigour. Both Tesco and Sainsbury offer case studies (Sainsbury’s are better) to inject some life, and also provide attractive nuggets to those prepared to dig around. Sainsbury’s chart showing what percentage of food sold in the US is British (35 per cent of broccoli and a tiddly 7 per cent of organic apples) is intriguing. But it is a shame such things are buried under layers of blandness.

Many people will turn to these sites to find the answers to hard questions. How green is my supermarket – really? Has it reduced the packaging it uses? Is it oppressing farmers and other suppliers? Is it damaging local shops?

Some of the answers can be found, though again only by the diligent. Most of the readily-accessible ‘statistics’ are carefully chosen to put a fine gloss on performance – graphs all seem to go in the right direction. Tesco boasts that the Business in the Community Corporate Responsibility Index rated it outstanding in five areas – but click through to the BITC site, and you will find that this is not that good: Tesco came 28th equal, well behind Sainsbury. On the other hand Tesco does provide a useful chart showing where it has missed its Key Performance Indicators, and explaining why. Nothing like that at Sainsbury’s. As for issues around suppliers, packaging and the like, Tesco retreats behind a wall of blandness with its Our Policies section. Sainsbury’s looks better, with well-highlighted FAQs that include ‘What does Sainsbury’s do to ensure its suppliers receive an adequate price?’. But the answers, it seems to me, do not tackle the real issues.

At least these two British giants are putting resources into online CSR. Most of the other groups I looked at are not. Carrefour (www.carrefour.com) has an interactive sustainability report. Its Scorecard acknowledges where it is underperforming, though the layout is odd and the overall blandness level high. Ahold (www.ahold.com) has a Responsibility section with some promising-looking FAQs– except that they all lead to the same (irrelevant) page. A link to a video of good works in Ghana is broken. Oh dear. But not as oh dear as the Co-operative Group (www.co-op.co.uk) the UK group that sells itself on its ethical approach. ‘Visit the Corporate Social Responsibility website’ its says, and ‘Download a copy of our latest CSR report’. Both links are broken.

If Ms Ford wants inspiration to bring to Sainsbury, there is one site she can look at: Wal-Mart (www.walmartstores.com). She will not learn how to report data more objectively (I suggest she looks at oil companies for that), nor will she see a company that tackles contentious issues (you would never guess that anyone had any problems with Wal-Mart). What she will discover is how to make social responsibility material intriguing, which I think is the biggest challenge of all.

‘Did you know?’ panels are always an engaging idea: ‘Our experimental store uses solar power to meet its energy needs’, the site says, ‘We helped a supplier reduce packaging, and saved 356 barrels of oil and 1300 trees.’Videos make increasing sense in a broadband-busy world, and I know few sites that use them so enthusiastically. ‘Maintaining habitat in Florida’ explains how a complete wetland was moved to make way for a store: it may be scary, but it’s fascinating. Then there is the CNBC story of how a new supplier landed a contract. The explanation of how it learned to squeeze its own suppliers because ‘Heh guys, it’s Wal-Mart – they squeeze us …’ either shows an admirable openness, or a lack of careful monitoring. It’s fascinating anyway.

Of course Wal-Mart should be learning from Tesco/Sainsbury. And they should all be learning from oil companies. Come to think of it, a little bit of cross-pollination could provide a social responsibility website that is fair, open and a good read. Just a thought for any newsreaders wondering how to get to grips with their new directorial responsibilities.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com).

dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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