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Over the next few years sustainability reporting is going to be going through some major evolutions. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is scheduled to launch its new G4 reporting framework by 2013. For those who may not be sustainability experts the GRI’s current G3 framework is the de facto single reporting standard in the world. The G4 is an evolution of the G3 framework that includes new sustainability issues which have emerged more visibly during the last five years since the G3 was developed in 2006. This post discusses the new G4 GRI reporting framework and makes the point that it is an opportunity to raise the threshold for all sustainability reports.

by Elaine Cohen, Joint CEO of BeyondBusiness Ltd. Read Elaine’s blog. Follow Elaine on Twitter. Elaine is the author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices

The next few years are looking interesting, we might even say exciting, on the sustainability reporting front. Two significant step-changes in reporting that we know we can expect are (1) the GRI G4 guidelines and (2) the Integrated Reporting framework. Last week, I attended the GRI webinar for Organizational Stakeholders where Nelmara Arbex, the Deputy Chief Executive of the GRI, took us through the paces on the way GRI is approaching both of these major developments.

The G4 – next generation of GRI guidelines

G4 is the new improved ! GRI framework which is scheduled for launch by 2013 for use in reporting probably during 2015. The process of developing the G4 will be the GRI’s familiar multi-stakeholder process whereby broad consultation over a prolonged period will lead to the development of a final G4 draft by the end of 2012. G4 has ambitious objectives, designed to meet several needs as GRI expects to ramp up the number of companies reporting over the next few years. Whilst reporting has made massive headway, particularly amongst the larger public companies, the fact remains that upwards of 80,000 public companies have not chosen to disclose sustainability information.

The G4 identifies two broad goals: improve the G3, and prepare for scale-up. This is how Nelmara Arbex presented the objectives:

Improving G3:

  • Provide better guidance on how to report on governance issues
  • More robust definitions to better support assurance processes
  • Updated sustainability scope
  • Guidance related to current stages of normative frameworks such as UNGC and OECD reporting guidelines
  • Revision of the current Application level definitions

Prepare for scale up:

  • Offer a variety of flexible reporting elements for use by reporters dealing with different requests
  • Develop a user friendly format
  • Link to the International Integrated Reporting Committee framework
  • Link to broader ESG reporting requests and ESG information users

Much of this might look like sudoku to you at this point, so let me try to fill in a few blanks from my own perspective.

G4 is the right direction

I will start by saying that I agree the G4 is the right way to go, and that there are many ways the current framework can be upgraded and modernized. As the GRI gains ground and becomes the de facto single reporting standard in the world, the name of the game will be not only to report on sustainability but also to do so in line with the GRI framework. As reporting “scales up” to achieve the aspirational mainstream, it makes absolute sense to reposition the common denominator and provide a platform which enables what we all want – a fair and balanced reflection of a company’s sustainability performance and material impacts on all stakeholders in a way which is auditable, comparable and aligned with the business results. Additionally, disclosures should be accessible and presented in a way which makes it easier for stakeholders to use the data in a range of decision making tools.

Updated sustainability scope

The G3 is long and detailed but not long and detailed enough. The GRI’s aspiration to “modernize” the G3 by including new sustainability issues which have emerged more visibly during the last five years since the G3 was developed in 2006 is absolutely relevant. Some issues have become more important such as the entire approach to water management whilst some represent new territory for the GRI such as the question of internet privacy and online exposure and intervention of corporations on social media, as well as a company’s approach to managing employee presence on the world wide web. Other issues are not specifically covered in G3, and I believe should be considered, such as the issue of road safety and how companies manage employees who spend a lot of time on the road for work purposes, a significant source of fatalities and other accidents which endanger not only employees but the general public. Many Sector Supplements have been developed during the past 5 years and it may be that some indicators which have been identified via a single sector should be mainstreamed into the overall framework. My recent editorial for CSRwire.com refers to the mushrooming of sustainability fragments – specific industry associations that address single aspects of sustainability common to industry groupings – and it may be that these are also throwing up issues that G4 should address as basic opportunities for a common approach to disclosure. Updating the sustainability scope, providing the broadest possible scope for companies to report against the indicators which are material to them, is therefore a challenging but worthy objective for G4.

Improve the robustness of the GRI framework application

It is painfully obvious that many Sustainability Reports that have not applied the framework lack rigor and balance. Regrettably, this can also be said of many who do use the framework, given a widespread lack of attention to detail when reporting on specific indicators. Far too often we find a GRI index at the back of a report which is neatly ticked off as fully disclosed only to find that, after detailed scrutiny, there is some fuzzy blurb which does not meet the requirements of the indicator. This is not helped by the hands-off approach by the GRI. The GRI Application Level Check, whilst very useful in providing an element of rigor in how the framework has been applied, only covers a small portion of the disclosures in any report and entirely skips over the quality of the assurance process. Given that the GRI framework is not positioned as a “standard” in the same way as ISO standards, for example, but as a helpful tool for organizations, the GRI has distanced itself from any kind of “policing” or auditing of the use of the GRI framework, leaving the door wide open for all of the 1,500 users of the framework to “self-declare” pretty much anything they like. Sustainability is about impacts (outcomes) and not only inputs (actions), and as the GRI framework is the gold standard of how to report on sustainability (outcomes), I believe there has to be a greater connection between what companies are saying they are reporting and what we can actually find in the report. Therefore the GRI ambition with G4 to improve the framework to enable more rigorous assurance is a good objective of the G4 process.

Provide a solution for harmonizing of reporting

As attention to sustainability has grown, so has the number of users of sustainability data, ranging from investor-targeted analysis and players in the financial markets, but also large companies who have understood that the sustainability of their business is linked to the sustainability of their broader supply chains. Companies such as Walmart and many others require sustainability data from their suppliers. Focused initiatives such as the Carbon Disclosure Project require data in a specific form. Local regulators are now requiring companies to include sustainability data in annual reporting. The UNGC and the OECD with whom the GRI has formed alliances, have their own reporting requirements as well. The plethora of requests to disclose that any company has to deal with is now becoming overly burdensome. The G4 aspiration is that reporters will be able to kill 43 birds with one stone and cover off all bases with one set of guidelines. Harmonization should utopically make it possible to ensure all the data anyone might need is contained in one report. This is massively challenging but if achievable, is well worth the effort.

Revision of the current Application Level definitions

Aah, application levels. This is an interesting and controversial debate. At present, the Application Levels tend to be seen as an indication of the quality of the report, though as we know, the C, B or coveted A represents the measure of transparency, rather than quality. Arguably a more transparent report is of higher quality, but transparency still does not address the quality of the information provided. The gap between the levels is problematic – where a C report requires 10 indicators, a B report requires 20 and an A report requires all 79 plus a published Sector Supplement if relevant. The random selection of indicators, including some which are fairly lightweight and non-material to a particular business, can mean that a C reporter can actually produce a sustainability report without disclosing hardly anything about their true sustainability impacts, and a B reporter may not be much better.

In my view, the Application Levels are unnecessary. What should be required is a summary table of indicators, in addition to the GRI detailed index which shows what has been reported and where to find it, which presents a quick n’ easy overview of how many and which indicators have been reported in full. Profile and Management Approach disclosures should be required for all reports (currently C reports do not require Management Approach disclosures) as should, I believe, a minimum number of core indicators against which all companies should report. In other words, G4 is an opportunity to raise the threshold for all reports. Additionally, reporters should make it easier for us to see what else they have included. In this way, we would have a 45 report, or a 79 report, or a 15 report, or a 23 report, where the number refers to the number of indicators reported in full, in addition to the “pass” level of minimum disclosure. Partial disclosures are a bonus but, in order to achieve harmonization and a realistic assessment of sustainability performance, we need to look at full disclosures against indicators and not only work-in-progress or wannabe disclosures.

Alignment with the IIRC framework

For the uninitiated, the IIRC is the International Integrated Reporting Committee, established in 2010 by the GRI and the Accounting for Sustainability movement to create a globally accepted framework for integrated reporting. The objective is that G4 should help companies to prepare for managing an integrated process in their companies and produce an integrated report in line with whatever framework the IIRC comes up with. The governance of the IIRC is as shown in the chart below, presented by Nelmara Arbex:
GRI IIRC governance framework

The members of the IIRC working group are predominantly accountants and investment experts, which tends to predict the nature of the output as predominantly geared towards the interests of financial markets, which is a double-edged sword and needs to be managed carefully. One of the objectives is to understand the link between sustainability impacts and financial results, if you like, a kind of platform for the financial ROI of sustainability as it is applies in a given company. This may yield some interesting outputs, but the integrated reporting framework is still a moving goalpost, and the preparatory alignment of G4 with the IIRC expected directional outcome makes sense, provided G4 does not become a pawn in the scheme of increasing the financial wealth of the already wealthy at the expense of other stakeholders.

G4 Technology

Another aspiration expressed for G4 is the use of new technology to make sustainability disclosures more accessible and allow for deeper analysis of data. New tools, ranging from XBRL to online reporting to iphone applications and direct realtime data feeds to a range of applications could take reporting to another level and give stronger presence to sustainability performance for stakeholders. The GRi has also begun licensing software applications for GRI reporting, and once can understand an interest in these being more widely used. How technology can be used effectively for improved content development, greater accessibility and transparency of non-financial disclosures, as well as providing support for public consultation, is a challenge. Part of this is how the GRI presents the new G4 framework and what technical tools, in addition to a set of indicators, the GRI will provide. Thinking will have to transcend the basic excel tables and PDF’s but not force reporting down a mechanical join-the-dots approach, exemplified by the “Let’s Report” C level template.

Continue the debate

What’s clear, is that the debate will continue, and if you have got this far in this obscenely long post, you might be interested in hearing more of Nelmara Arbex and other throught leaders in this space at a conference in London on 25th March, hosted by Justmeans, called Redefining Value, which I will also attend. I love a good debate!

I could continue … and I probably will at some stage … but in the meantime, is there anyone who doesn’t agree that the next few years will be an interesting time for Sustainability Reporting ?

© 2011, Elaine_Cohen. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Elaine_Cohen (19 Articles)

Elaine Cohen is the Joint CEO of BeyondBusiness Ltd, a leading CSR consulting and reporting firm, offering a wide range of consulting services for the strategic development of social and environmental responsibility of businesses, reporting and assurance using the GRI and Accountability frameworks, and reporting on application of Global Compact principles. Elaine writes a blog on CSR reporting, expert CSR report reviews for CorporateRegister.com ,tweets on CSR topics at @elainecohen and has specialist knowledge of governance, ethics, diversity, advancement of women, responsible workplace and use of social media for csr communications.