After two decades working as a CSR professional and just three months leading GRI, I’m more convinced than ever that transparency is a powerful force for change. But I’m also just as convinced that we are still far from end goal: sustainable development. We must evolve sustainability reporting in order to get from here to there.
So how can we get better returns on investments in sustainability reporting?
No really, I’m asking you.
Sustainability challenges, like climate change, safeguarding human rights, and gender equality are too pressing for us to waste time. That’s why, before I looked to make changes at GRI, I went on a listening tour, to connect with GRI’s extensive, multi-stakeholder network. I wanted to hear firsthand from all the groups and individuals that have helped us develop the GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards over the past 20 years. (I’d also like to hear from you. Please use the comment section below or pop me a tweet @TimJMohin).
But first, here’s a taste of what I have heard so far.
How can sustainability reporting make a difference when no one reads these reports?
It’s true. Your average Joe doesn’t hop online to read a sustainability report. These reports will likely never be interesting to the broader public, but they are read by a company’s external and internal stakeholders. As I’ve written in the past, corporate reports are both a window (through which external stakeholders can view the inner workings of the business) and a mirror (for employees and management to reflect upon their own actions). But this question is an important one. Many of the business leaders I‘ve spoken with want a better understanding of how to use reporting to contribute to sustainable development. I’ve been told that in order to make reporting more useful, reports must be concise, more forward-looking and more comparable. Making sustainability reporting accessible to small companies is also a concern that is often raised. And there’s significant interest in how reporting will continue to evolve into the future, in particular when it comes to emerging issues such as conflict minerals and forced labor. I’ve also received a number of questions about how technology can make reporting more effective. These will be some of the things we focus on at GRI as we review our strategy.
Don’t current political developments in the US and beyond undermine the reporting landscape? Won’t potential deregulation scuttle the progress we’ve made?
Regulation and legislation certainly play an important role. We know that regions with smart policies on sustainability reporting have the highest reporting rates and also the highest quality reporting. But even if political developments lead to a loosening of policy and regulation, I still hope companies will continue reporting and become more transparent. That’s because reporting isn’t a compliance issue; it’s a strategic exercise that yields tangible benefits. At the companies where I worked, reporting helped us innovate, refine our corporate strategies and improve stakeholder relations. It also helped us be better stewards of the planet and social conditions. But loosening of policy and regulation could hamper this progress.
There’s GRI, UNGC, CDP, IIRC and SASB and they’re all competing with each other. How are businesses supposed to know what method to use and why can’t these organizations work together?
Many companies question the need for so many initiatives. And of course there’s a perception that these organizations are competing with each other. I can tell you from my new position at the helm of GRI, this notion is false. Most of the various reporting initiatives are complementary. GRI has on-going collaborations with the many other organizations and, among the leadership of these initiatives, there’s general agreement that we need to work together. On a practical level, we have two Corporate Leadership Groups, one with UN Global Compact, exploring how to align reporting with the Sustainable Development Goals, and another with the International Integrated Reporting Council, looking at how companies can best integrate sustainability data with financial data. That said, the confusion in the market didn’t create itself. It’s the result of actual fragmentation. Many people I spoke with said they want to see even more harmonization of reporting frameworks. The consensus is that failing to do so will increase reporting fatigue, and stymie the progress we’ve made. At GRI, we’re committed to increasing harmonization and simplification in the reporting landscape. This will be a major focus for me as GRI’s Chief Executive (Here’s a recent article on this subject, which I penned with Jean Rogers from the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board).
So that’s some of the feedback I’ve received so far. It’s clear all organizations working in this space have a lot more work to do. While I don’t yet have definitive answers to these questions, this is invaluable input that will guide my strategic planning at GRI. I hope you will let me know what you think about sustainability reporting and what we need to improve.
Our North Star is and will always be sustainable development. I know that if we focus on this, we can leave behind a better world for future generations.
KEYWORDS: Responsible Business & Employee Engagement, Research, Reports & Publications, GRI, global reporting initiative, GRI Standards, sustainability reporting, harmonization, csr, Integrated Reporting