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Bayer: A Thorough Checkup and Diagnosis

By Michelle Bernhart (True Blue Communications) on July 13, 2009 at 11:51am.

With more than 115 densely packed, text-heavy pages, the 2008 Bayer Group Sustainable Development Report is not for those short on time or prone to headaches from too much reading. Luckily, Bayer makes an enormous range of medicines in pursuit of its mission, “Science for a better life.” Bayer also develops pesticides, crop seeds, polyurethane, and other products and materials, while providing services to the chemical industry, including waste management, utility supply, and others. All are well-covered in the report and it’s clear that Bayer recognizes its most powerful sustainability achievements will come through its products and services and not through its internal operations, although both are thoroughly addressed. 

In fact, almost half of Bayer’s sustainability objectives through 2010 are directly related to product development and distribution (e.g., “provision of improved anticancer drugs” and “research into new methods of treating multiple sclerosis”). This includes a few objectives that some readers will find undesirable related to new herbicides, insecticides, and other aspects of crop science. To this end, readers who advocate enhancement of organic farming methods also may become frustrated by Bayer’s talk of a “second green revolution” and the company’s goal to help the public “understand the relationships between ecosystems and crop protection [chemicals] and seed technologies [gene modification].”

Despite various climate change-oriented initiatives (the company has specific and absolute GHG reduction targets and is investing significantly in climate-relevant projects), the report represents a somewhat mixed approach to energy. For example, it mentions that the “best solution for supplying energy to chempark Krefeld-Uerdingen, Germany [is] a new 750-megawatt coal-fired power plant…”. Although the plant will be “one of the most efficient coal-fired power plants of this size", it is still a coal-fired plant. Renewable forms of energy are mentioned just twice and in the context of evaluating Bayer cultures as raw materials for biofuels.


Although the text is generally uncluttered, it sometimes suffers from awkward and confusing sentences, possibly due to translation. In just one example of many where readers could become a bit lost, Professor Blok of the Scientific Committee for the Bayer Climate Award says, “So saving money on sustainability solutions now will cost later." At first read, the implication is negative, as though achieving savings through sustainability solutions is a bad outcome. But the context seems to indicate otherwise when he comments, “I am sure that sustainable companies will gain an increased market share.” Additionally, the extensive narrative throughout the report becomes fatiguing as the eyes long for a few bullets, charts, graphs, or other visuals to occasionally convey the information in a different way. While some narrative explanation is necessary to establish context, provide comparisons, or help decipher complex technical information, this report’s over-reliance on lengthy prose ultimately detracts from its usefulness. 

Likewise, the dominant use of tables instead of graphs to convey performance data on water discharges, air emissions, waste generation and disposal, accidents, and other indicators makes it more difficult to view trends over time, despite data being reported back to 2004. The avoidance of graphs is puzzling, especially given Bayer’s steady improvements in many areas. And, in at least two places where a visual enhancement is provided (global energy consumption and water consumption per product in Germany), the link to Bayer is absent. For instance, how are readers to interpret the fact that 2,000 liters of water are consumed in producing one cotton t-shirt (page 44)? How does this compare to the water required to produce Bayer products and what are readers to make of this?

But these are small annoyances in an otherwise comprehensive and well-organized report. Readers will no doubt appreciate the consolidated news section, which occupies six pages near the beginning. The news highlights from the reporting period are accessible, interesting, balanced (the good reported alongside the less good), and relevant to Bayer’s sustainability. Best of all, they’re located in one place for reader convenience. Other good examples of easy-to-use content appear in the form of a Bayer sustainability timeline and a table of performance against objectives since 2006, which includes a slightly more detailed and credible visual assessment of progress for each objective than found in some reports. 

In keeping with the increasing awareness of supply chain issues globally, Bayer has established a new objective related to sustainable procurement, which includes a supply chain code of conduct and training on human rights, working conditions, environmental protection, and management systems. Readers of Bayer’s previous reports may also be interested in the new objective related to Bayer’s human rights stance, and a new aim to develop a drug combatting pulmonary hypertension.

Finally, the report includes a link to an excellent online survey about sustainability interests, performance assessment, and use of the report. 


It’s clear that Bayer is dedicated to innovation in the pursuit of its mission, and that its leaders believe completely in the ability of its products and services to “provide solutions to the major challenges of our time – global access to medicines, feeding the growing world population, conserving water resources and limiting the progression of climate change.”  It’s hard to quibble with this mission, and throughout the report, readers are reminded of the myriad ways in which Bayer contributes to better quality of life. Bayer’s approach seems to be one of both nobility of purpose and humility in everyday execution. The report strikes the right balance here, and problems, such as the U.S. Federal Drug Administration’s case against Bayer for alleged misleading claims about an oral contraceptive, as well as various transportation- and facility-related incidents, an incident of child labor in the supply chain, and a corruption-related settlement, are sufficiently addressed. 

Notably, the report also provides a degree of transparency on animal studies — including actual numbers of animals used and significant reductions over time — not often seen in this industry. Moreover, the report includes two sections on pharmaceutical residues in water and describes Bayer’s actions on this issue of increasing concern to many. 

Assessing credibility in Bayer’s progress and reporting on employee diversity is more difficult. The report notes that “Equality of opportunity for men and women has been a basic principle of recruitment and professional advancement at Bayer for many years. In Germany, for instance, we have had a Joint Committee on Equality of Opportunity for more than 18 years.”  Yet the photos of Bayer’s six subgroups and service company leaders reveal six white men, leaving one to wonder about the effectiveness of this committee to get women into the executive ranks. And of the eight interviews and professional statements included in the report, only one features a woman. On the one hand, readers could conclude that this accurately reflects Bayer’s makeup, which, although unfortunate, could be a credible reflection of the truth. Alternatively, it is distressing to consider that Bayer has so few women in positions worthy of being featured. Stated improvements in the numbers of women in various positions are positive, but the faces in the report tell a different story.

The report was developed using GRI (A+ application level) and underwent external assurance on key chapters. The assurance statement is routine stuff without recommendations or guidance to support ongoing improvements.


1. Eliminate redundancy in the report; topics are often addressed in two places, with helpful cross-references provided. However, these second mentions could be limited to the references alone; there is no value to repeating the same information, which only lengthens an already comprehensive report.
2. Use fewer tables and more graphs to present performance data, allowing readers to more readily track performance over time.
3. Consider adopting a more expansive approach to assurance, one that includes identifying and reporting on areas for improvement.

Michelle Bernhart is the founder of True Blue Communications LLC, which helps organizations strengthen sustainability performance, achieve strategic objectives, enhance brand, and manage risk through credible and engaging communications. www.truebluecomm.com