Achieving robust non-financial reporting
Using data generated at the customer level Syngenta breaks new ground
Corporate non-financial information enhances the understanding of the company’s activities, challenges and opportunities. External stakeholders and internal managers use it to measure performance and make decisions about the company, and they should be able to have complete confidence in it.
The quality of information is a reflection of the maturity of a company’s internal control environment. Non-financial reporting processes and internal controls have traditionally been less mature than those existing in financial reporting. Due to the increased business relevance of non-financial information, companies like Syngenta have recognized the need for a robust internal control environment for non-financial information.
Commitment to sustainable development
With more than 28,000 employees in over 90 countries, Syngenta’s business serves and sustains one of the world’s largest industries: agriculture. Today the industry is grappling with one of the toughest challenges on earth – feeding the world’s fast-growing population. In September 2013, Syngenta set ambitious quantitative targets to help the world’s growers rise to that challenge in a sustainable way. Syngenta calls this commitment “The Good Growth Plan”*. As an integral part of Syngenta’s business strategy, the Plan focuses on six crucial issues – land productivity and input efficiency, soil fertility, biodiversity, smallholder inclusiveness, product stewardship and supply chain sustainability.
Shortly after the launch of The Good Growth Plan, and with the support of its Executive Committee, Syngenta embarked on a project to improve its non-financial reporting. Guided by the principles outlined in the 2013 COSO Internal Control-Integrated Framework and leveraging financial reporting concepts and practices, the initial efforts focused on designing, implementing and documenting reporting processes and controls for the collection and reporting of performance data associated with The Good Growth Plan.
Data collected from over 3,600 farms
Key challenges that were overcome in the first year encompassed: (i) the complexity of establishing rigorous reporting processes and collecting reliable data beyond the company boundaries, as most data for The Good Growth Plan are generated at the customer farm level; (ii) the uniqueness of the performance indicators of The Good Growth Plan and the unprecedented non-financial reporting approaches required; and (iii) the required change in mind-set among the individuals involved in reporting, who are experts in their respective technical fields (e. g. biodiversity, product stewardship, labor rights) but not familiar with concepts such as internal controls and assurance of information.
In its Annual Report 2014, Syngenta reported Good Growth Plan progress information for the first time. In collaboration with the Open Data Institute, it was also published in open data format, i. e. searchable, useable and shareable via the Internet. For example, datasets included information for agricultural efficiency indicators collected in over 3,600 farms in more than 40 countries and 20 crops. It was the first time information at a crop level was made public in this way by a commercial organization.
Pioneer in assurance for non-financials
Syngenta has been conducting limited assurance on its externally reported non-financial information for over ten years. In 2015, and following a Board of Directors recommendation, Syngenta took the reporting rigor of The Good Growth Plan to the next level and achieved reasonable assurance, i. e. a level similar to that found in financial audit. Achieving the required rigor entailed having more robust internal controls and reporting tools, better defined accountabilities and sharper documented procedures. It also required conducting extensive training for the individuals involved in reporting activities. As a result, the quality and confidence in the data has significantly increased. For example, performance measures of Syngenta Management now also include metrics associated with the targets of The Good Growth Plan.
Work is still ongoing. Syngenta is continuing to further streamline the reporting processes, embed them into the business and increase transparency. The company is also improving the rigor of the reporting processes of other material non-financial performance indicators beyond those of The Good Growth Plan.
* The Good Growth Plan, goodgrowthplan.com
An auditor never provides absolute or 100% certain assurance – as there is always an opinion involved leaving room for inaccuracies. Reasonable assurance means that a report is free from material misstatement as far as the auditor can judge.