The Proposed Future of Corporate Sustainability Reporting

What You Need to Know about the Global Reporting Initiative’s G4 Exposure Draft and Thematic Revisions

By Kindra LeFevre, GRI Certified

Each year more public companies are publishing corporate sustainability reports to disclose economic, environmental and social aspects of business. Currently, 80 percent of the world's 250 largest companies publish sustainability reports aligned to the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework, and increasingly more organizations and stock exchanges encourage it.

With GRI's release of a draft of the fourth generation of its reporting framework (G4) and thematic revisions of the greenhouse gas (GHG) and anti-corruption sections this summer, it's critical companies know this is the time, during G4's second public comment period, to influence these guidelines — until Sept. 25, 2012, for the G4 Exposure Draft and Nov. 12, 2012, for G4 thematic revisions.

What Is the GRI?

GRI is a nonprofit organization based in Amsterdam that developed an internationally recognized framework for sustainability reporting, which allows a consistent comparison across companies' economic, social and environmental activities.

GRI's Revision Process

GRI follows an extensive, multistakeholder review process, as shown in Figure 1, to position its next generation of sustainability reporting guidelines as relevant to the organizations adhering to its framework. Stakeholders involved include sustainability professionals and representatives from a variety of industries — leaders in business, labor, finance, and civic and trade organizations as well as academics, report users and consultants worldwide. Working groups bring in experts in supply chain, corporate governance, management, anti-corruption, biodiversity, GHG emissions, and occupational health and safety.

GRI is conducting international workshops and webinars to gain exposure and collect feedback on proposed changes. Burns & McDonnell hosted GRI and interested stakeholders — including a break-out session for Airlines for America members in attendance and a webcast to members of the St. Louis Regional Governance Association — on Aug. 22, 2012. After feedback is collected, G4 will be revised accordingly, and the final version of G4 will be launched at GRI's Global Conference on Sustainability and Reporting, May 22-24, 2013, in Amsterdam.

Proposed Changes to G4 Exposure Draft

Proposed are five fundamental changes to application levels, boundary, disclosure on management approach, governance and supply chain.

Application Levels

A significant change in G4 could be replacing application levels, as shown in Figure 2, with criteria companies must meet to state the report was prepared "in accordance" with GRI. These criteria would include:

  • All profile disclosures
  • Disclosures on management approach and material core indicators 
  • All disclosures in applicable GRI sector supplements
  • GRI content index
  • Statement signed by the CEO or highest governance body indicating "the report has been prepared in accordance with GRI guidelines and that it is a balanced and reasonable presentation of the organization's economic, environmental and social impacts" 
  • Explanation of omissions and plan to be able to report on that particular topic in future reports

This proposed revision results from a misconception that the A, B, C and associated pluses indicated a grade of the company's sustainability performance or report. The plus in G3/G3.1 indicates the report was assured by an independent third party.

There is a two-year grace period for first-time reporters, but GRI has not yet ruled on whether or not this will also apply to current GRI reporters. However, GRI mentioned it is likely that seasoned reporters will have until May 2015 — two years after the May 2013 release date — to apply with the new "in accordance" criteria to be recognized as a GRI report.

Boundary

In the proposed G4 Exposure Draft, GRI revised the definition of "boundary" and associated sections of the Technical Protocol, Applying the Report Content Principles. The G4 Exposure Draft explains: "Boundary refers to the range of value chain elements or areas covered in the report for each material topic. In setting the boundaries for material topics, an organization should consider impacts throughout its entire value chain, regardless of whether it exercises control or influence over the elements in its value chain. Boundaries vary based on the topic being reported."

This is a shift of the reporting boundary to the company's impact rather than on its legal ownership or sphere of influence and adds the step of mapping the company's value chain. This gives companies more subjectivity in defining reporting boundaries, but could increase reporting scope.

Disclosure on Management Approach

GRI has provided additional guidance on how to prepare disclosures on management approach (DMA), which gives reporters the opportunity to expand on how materiality was assessed and how the topic is monitored and evaluated. In the proposed G4 Exposure Draft, GRI divides DMAs into generic and aspect levels, where aspects fall under the existing categories of economic, environmental, labor practices and decent work, human rights, society, and product responsibility. Standard disclosures are grouped as generic DMAs to minimize repetition.

Governance and Remuneration

GRI's reorganization of existing governance disclosures increases focus on sustainability reporting and reduces redundancy with annual report content, should the reporting organization produce separate annual and sustainability reports. Related to this aspect is integrated reporting. GRI will work with the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) to provide guidance on this topic. Development timelines for GRI and IIRC did not sync up in time for this section to be incorporated in the G4 Exposure Draft.

Supply Chain

GRI increased focus on supply chain in the G4 Exposure Draft, which includes new definitions of supply chain and supplier, new profile disclosures and generic DMAs. The new definition of supply chain is proposed as: "The part of the value chain which consists of the sequence of suppliers and activities that provides materials, products or services to an organization." The definition of supplier is expanded to provide additional guidance on groups that fall into this category.

Proposed Thematic Revisions

GRI's proposed thematic revisions are content-specific to GHG emissions and anti-corruption but are less drastic than those in the G4 Exposure Draft.

GHG Emissions

GRI's thematic revisions to GHG emissions deal primarily with alignment to the GHG Protocol, International Organization for Standardization 14064 and across applicable indicators and energy reporting. New items include intensity reporting for emissions and energy, incorporation into the value chain, a separate emissions aspect and three new performance indicators.

Anti-Corruption

GRI's thematic revisions to the anti-corruption section include grouping disclosures in a new ethics section and updating terminology for clarity and alignment with anti-corruption disclosure best practices.


For more information about GRI, visit www.globalreporting.org.

For more information about corporate sustainability reporting, visit www.dataconservation.com/csr.


 Corporate Sustainability Reporting by the Numbers

  • 95% of 250 largest companies in the world (G250) report on corporate responsibility activities
  • 80% of G250 and 69% of the top 100 global companies use the GRI reporting framework
  • 77% of FORTUNE 500 companies report to GRI
  • 273 U.S. companies released GRI reports in 2011
  • 70 U.S. companies released non-GRI sustainability reports in 2011
  • 46% growth in absolute number of U.S. GRI reports from 2010 to 2011 


Feedback

To influence the next generation of GRI's reporting framework, provide feedback directly to GRI by registering online at http://consultation.globalreporting.org/griportal/php/register.php.

Feedback deadlines:

  • Sept. 25: GRI G4 Exposure Draft
  • Nov. 12: GRI G4 thematic revisions

 


 

About the Author

Kindra LeFevre is a GRI certified sustainability specialist at Burns & McDonnell. She assists FORTUNE 500 companies in developing corporate sustainability reports that follow the internationally recognized GRI framework. She earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts in German from the University of Missouri and a Master of Business Administration with a marketing certificate from the University of Houston.

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