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US Army: A force to be reckoned with

By William D Alessandro on December 05, 2011 at 10:29am.

Content:

The US Army does not need a journalist of any rank, not even a veteran of the first Earth Day, to pass judgment on its third annual sustainability report.  The world’s most practiced military force is ready and able to defend itself.  So listen up: 

• “The Army’s purpose is to fight and win the nation’s wars.”

• “The Army recognizes that its ongoing operations and activities can and do have pronounced economic, environmental, and social impacts that, if not addressed, can directly affect its ability to accomplish its mission.”

Getting down to brass tacks: 
• “As reflected throughout this report, the Army upholds sustainability as an organizing principle, keeping one primary objective in mind: to enable access to the air, land, and water resources needed to train and ready the force for current and future missions.”

There you have it.  Sustainability is, in the Army’s own words, operationally imperative, fiscally prudent, and mission critical.  Not many corporations can describe their management of the triple bottom line as unequivocally.  

The 80-page 2010 sustainability report covers the fiscal and calendar-year 2009 — a watershed.  In line with an executive order from the White House in October of that year, every agency of the federal government has to initiate a strategic sustainability performance plan. 

The Army had a head start.   A decade before, commanders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, faced mortal constraints.  With some 60,000 military and civilian employees, the Army’s largest base occupies eight times the area of the city of Paris.  Army operations were killing endangered species (against the law).  Civilian abutters were encroaching on the Army’s borders.  The camp’s neighbours had enough sleazy bars and strip joints.  The continuation of training activities for the Army airborne operations and the Green Berets at the installation was threatened.

The long-term regional sustainability plan forged in partnership with surrounding communities became a classic of a win-win story.  It has been reproduced at 30 other installations since 2001.

The evolution of Army sustainability is traced in the first 20 pages of the report.  Four chapters follow.  Each deals with one principle of sustainability (the Army calls them tenets).   They are “material”, “readiness”, “human capital” and “services and infrastructure”.  Each chapter defines the tenet, reports on actions associated with it, and describes progress made in 2009. 

The annex is 17 pages.  It contains the index of Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) performance indicators.  For each indicator a reference is given to a page number in the report or to a website for the source of the data. 

The four tables that make up the annex (one for organizational content and three for GRI’s economic, environmental, and social responsibility metrics) are impressive by every measure.   Each criteria on the GRI content index is annotated assiduously.  To get some idea of how seriously the Army tries to adhere to the GRI rules, glance at the explanation given for indicator EC5, which calls for a comparison of the standard entry-level wage to the local minimum wage at important locations where the reporting entity operates.  The Army makes no excuses nor does it dodge the question simply because it is so different from all other service organisations.

While the Army collects mountains of data, the report draws strictly on information that is accessible to the public via the World Wide Web.  So the sustainability report is a compilation of information that is discoverable otherwise.

Communication:

Imagine the opportunities for a sustainability report by a national armed force to go fatally wrong.  The US Army had innumerable occasions to be tone deaf.  Instead, the narrative is sensitive where it needs to be, and the Army’s attitude on sustainability rings true.

The Army must have been sorely tempted to exploit the photo ops for this report.   But the dozen or so pictures in it are strictly reportorial and suitably low-keyed.  Only one, on the cover, evokes a harsher reality.  A solitary soldier in full gear, armed with some €19,000 worth of weapons and military gizmos, stands guard over irrigated land in Afghanistan.  There is more to say on this point later.

The report is well thought out and superbly designed.  The contents page includes a listing for each table and each figure in the report; and the page is interactive (but there is no way to return to the index with one click).   The footnotes, however, are not hot.  That is a pity because the notes — 72 of them listed at the end — elucidate the text in a beneficial way and contain links to other important material.

Boxes with green type throughout the report contain feature stories, examples to embellish the narrative, and quotations.  Blue boxes are used to highlight the specific requirements in the White House executive order on sustainability for energy, water, and sustainable buildings.

The tables of GRI indicators contain one column with bars showing whether the metric is fully reported, partially reported, or not reported or not applicable for the Army’s purposes.  Every divergence from a GRI protocol is fully explained.   Of 87 indicators, 33 are fully reported and 21 are partially.  To a reasonably practical extent, the Army explains why they do not report on the other indicators. 

The index is exceptional.  As politically incorrect as it would be, GRI should invite someone from the US Army to speak in Amsterdam at the 2013 conference when the fourth revision of the sustainability reporting guidelines is scheduled for launch. 

Credibility:

The Army self-declares the data, including indicators required by GRI’s sector supplement for public agencies.  The disclosures meet application level B.  All criteria are covered describing the organization and performance in the areas of economics, environment, human rights, labour, society, and product responsibility.  Financial statements meet the accounting principles established by the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board.

The Army says an internal process is in place to review the data and the collection system is improving.  External and internal audits are used to evaluate the effectiveness of some programs related to sustainability.

The Army is the first federal agency in the US to publish a sustainability report.   The standard it sets for the rest is very high.  Cynicism has no justifiable place here.  One only needs to imagine the positive consequences if the army of Myanmar or [insert the force of your choice] published a GRI sustainability report that is anything like the US Army’s. 

Menacing questions, though, lurk on the flanks.  The word that comes to mind to describe the report is not “narrow” but rather “circumscribed.”  The report is almost exclusively about operations in the US.  When foreign sites are mentioned at all, the data do not include forward operating locations.  (Suppliers and privatised facilities are also not included.  Contractor waste and fraud fall outside the lines.) 

Torture, collateral damage, the sustainability impacts of combat, and other profound subjects like the terrible waste that is war, go AWOL.  The serious flaw is that the report stops where hostilities start.

Recommendations:

1.  Hot link the footnotes, and double-check the links to other web sites.  Some of them are malfunctioning.
2.  Say more, at least say something legitimate, about the Army’s supply chain.
3.  Report on issues that arise at the most distant boundaries of your congressional mandate.  Has sustainability not altered your traditional understanding about the nature of global security?  Has it not affected your opinion about the best way to guarantee national security?

William D’Alessandro is president of Victor House News Co., an independent agency reporting on law and the environment for trade publications and executive newsletters.  He also edits Crosslands Bulletin http://www.crosslandsbulletin.com covering strategic corporate environmental management and sustainability issues.