Pharmaceutical giant leads the way not only with its sustainability but also with its reporting

Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk published its first environmental report in 1994. Twenty years on – and 10 years into integrated reporting – its 2013 annual report reflects decades of sustainability leadership. The report is a downloadable PDF, linked to additional online reporting, including the Form 20-F, corporate governance report, UN Global Compact report and diversity report.

Readers are invited to complete a survey on the quality of the reporting. While it’s unlikely that Novo Nordisk has been inundated with comments, it’s an unusual feature that shows openness to critique.

Novo Nordisk is the world’s largest insulin producer, providing products to more than 24 million people globally. This narrative is illustrated with bright, candid photographs of diabetes patients and Novo Nordisk employees, which (refreshingly for a pharmaceutical company) avoid obvious pathos.

As in 2012, the 2013 report cover echoes a magazine layout, featuring snappy headlines such as “Is obesity a disease?” and “One size doesn’t fit all”. But this report is decidedly not a magazine. Its data-driven, content-heavy 116 pages span financial, social and environmental performance and strategy, following AA1000APS (2008) principles, International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) guiding principles, and Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G3 guidelines. This is the first year since 2007 that Novo Nordisk has integrated its GRI report into its annual report.

Integration can mean more cohesive and clear reporting. It can also mean the opposite. With so much information to cover, providing a snappy narrative throughout the report would make it overwhelmingly long, and difficult to navigate. Novo Nordisk’s report is undeniably dense, and fewer than 30 of its more than 100 pages are used to feature case studies and illuminate strategy and risks beyond pie charts and technical summaries. 

Well pitched

Divided into four key sections, the second, “Our business”, is the most engaging. This section reflects the magazine theme hinted at in the cover, in looks and structure. Key details, like the company’s triple bottom line business strategy, regional presence, research, risks and targets are interwoven into thought-provoking articles. These articles cleverly balance scientific detail appropriate for an industry reader while avoiding technical jargon that would alienate a curious stakeholder.

Providing a human interest angle to otherwise dry information – for example, a two-page piece on the complexity of insulin production – is a tried and tested approach that is engaging to a varied audience. 

It was a challenging year for Novo Nordisk, which received a warning from the US Food and Drug Administration, experienced a safety scare around multiple products, and underwent a major product recall. Despite these problems, its sales increased by 12% and operating profit by 15%.

These conflicting performance markers are addressed in letters from the chairman and CEO and a four-page section titled “A question of trust”, which delves into the pharmaceutical industry’s ongoing struggle to balance financial performance with social responsibilities. The article is a clever way to address controversy specific to their performance, while connecting it to wider governance issues, and runs alongside an image of a stack of books with titles that are the stuff of PR nightmares, such as “Bad Pharma” and “Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime”. Perhaps a risky way to discuss risk, but daring and effective.

While the editorial style of the “Our business” section is engaging, the creativity of the subsection titles confuses the contents page and makes navigating an otherwise well-organised report more challenging than it should be. In previous years, performance highlights spanning five years were immediately detailed; this year the reader must navigate through performance summaries and the 2014 outlook first.

More confusingly, while the financial, social and environmental statements are provided in the second half of the report, the narrative around how these markers were achieved are hidden in the “2013 performance and 2014 outlook” section at the front. This forces the reader to use the search function to find comprehensive detail of specific activity. Having foregone a separate GRI index, a clear navigation at the front end of the report is particularly missed. 

Heralded as the most sustainable company in the world by Corporate Knights, Novo Nordisk’s corporate publications are released with a degree of expectation. While the packaging of the 2013 annual report is not the most ground-breaking or creative, the quality of disclosure goes a long way to confirming that the company continues to impress long after Sampras laid down his tennis racket. 


 Follows GRI?   Yes, G3.1
Assured?     Yes, by PWC.
Materiality analysis? Yes. Assessment process described but no matrix provided.
Goals?     Yes
Targets?        Yes. Long-term financial, social, and environmental.
Stakeholder input? Yes. Detail of company reputation with external key stakeholders.
Seeks feedback? Yes
Key strengths?  Magazine format brings strategy, KPIs, and targets to life.
Chief weakness? Contents page lacks detail. Graphics and presentation do not reflect sophistication of the report.
Pleasant surprise? Technical articles engaging and easy to understand.  



Hayley Morgan is a consultant at Context Europe.            




annual report  Novo Nordisk  pharma  pharmaceutical sustainability  reporting 

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