Your Membership
Your Membership
Reviews   About

Expert Reviews

Search   Tags   Author   Everything

Totally revealing

By Zoë Cokeliss (Context) on June 03, 2009 at 1:48pm.


This report illustrates why the much criticised genre of corporate responsibility reporting is so valuable. Not because it ticks all the GRI boxes (it’s pretty comprehensive at 106 pages), not because it’s brilliantly assured (by two major audit companies), but because of how much it reveals about the company and the mindset of its management.

Analysts call for a discussion of business strategy in the context of CR and Total tries to provide this up front in a section titled ‘Pointers’. There’s a coherent explanation of oil supply and demand and price volatility. Total explain that volatility is delaying its ability ‘to develop the resources the world still needs’. They don’t define whether they see these resources as being more far flung fossil fuels or renewable generation (the company has a range of renewable and nuclear businesses). And that’s the crux for this sector.

The ‘Pointers’ section and the adjacent CEO interview clearly reveal the company’s strategy – perhaps a little more than its authors intended. Read these key sections a couple of times and you begin to realise how much thought has been given to the messaging. External stakeholders are used to provide credibility and an apparent openness to challenge. But they have been selected and positioned in the report to support Total’s strategic objectives.

For example, the stakeholders in the ‘Pointers’ section are experts in poverty alleviation and population growth. Their independent perspectives therefore endorse Total’s central thesis that the world needs more fossil fuels to be extracted and sold. Charts are produced to 2030 showing the compelling need to do this. When a climate expert is eventually included later in the report, even his comments are carefully nuanced to cast doubt over the IPCC target of limiting global warming to two degrees. This is a very clever report from a sophisticated team.

The main report is divided into two main sections: ‘Our business principles’ and ‘Our main challenges’. The former covers standard topics such as corporate responsibility governance, environmental management systems, and company position statements. It could quite easily be moved to the web and merged with the text already there (incidentally, this review only covers the printed/pdf report, but at the time of writing Total needed to update its web links – I was repeatedly directed to the 2007 report).

The ‘main challenges’ section comprises 58 densely-packed pages covering everything from responsible fossil fuels development to biodiversity conservation. Each section contains a mixture of approach and performance text, supplemented by a wealth of contextual information. It’s comprehensive but not always easy to find the key points.


Generally well-written, Total’s report suffers in places from the use of business jargon and some rather grandiose language – take, for example, the section called “In this time of major crisis, Total can leverage solid fundamentals to secure the future”. That said, it seems unfair to focus excessively on the language used, seeing as the report is most likely translated from French. Throughout, the tone is factual and unpromotional, speaking to an informed audience which can deal with the complex and often scientific issues at hand.

Key performance indicators presented on page 4 should be a useful ‘one-stop-shop’. But they fail to cover high-profile issues such as CO2 emissions, and use unexplained jargon and acronyms (TRIR and SMS, anyone?). Those with more time to devote to the report will find more comprehensive performance information at the start of each ‘main challenge’ section.

Visually, the report is a little overwhelming. A wide variety of devices is deployed in each section, including case studies, illustrations and boxes providing everything from stakeholder insights to information about how Total is meeting its Global Compact commitments. This makes it difficult to know where to start on each page. But it is colourful and varied, and certainly makes a change from often dry corporate report design. Especially effective are the delightful illustrations, used successfully to depict Total’s value chain and renewable energy projects.


The report has all the trappings of transparency: stakeholder voices, assurance, good metrics, even challenging questions for the CEO. But is it credible? Not to me.

Credibility in this sector requires the best science on climate change from the IPCC to be juxtaposed with the sector’s growth strategy. The glaring credibility gap is dodged here with considerable skill. Perhaps it is too soon to expect any big oil company to face up to reality but we are advised time is short.


· Strip the PDF / printed report down to the essentials. Present and discuss the pertinent issues and key performance from the year. Show that Total is engaged in the sustainability debate surrounding its core commodity

· Put the business principles and detailed ‘sustainability approach’ text online, so it’s still available to interested parties but makes the report briefcase-friendly

· Calm down the design a little. Keep using lots of boxes and illustrations, but make them more consistent – one style for case studies, another for stakeholder voices, for example

· Include only the most relevant case studies and best examples – move the rest to the web to save space.

· Align web and print reporting so readers can jump easily between the two and know what to read where. Make sure website is updated by the time the report is released!

· Call off the spin doctors – on second thoughts, leave well alone. We learn more about Total observing their tactics.

Zoë Cokeliss is a consultant at Context, a corporate sustainability strategy and communications consultancy with offices in London and New York. We are the world’s most experienced provider of advice and writing for corporate sustainability reports.