Inside GRI’s new ‘beyond reporting’ strategy

Two Steps Forward

Inside GRI’s new ‘beyond reporting’ strategy


Today, the Global Reporting Initiative is unveiling plans to launch what it calls “the next era of sustainability reporting.” The Amsterdam-based nonprofit is aiming its focus on four strategic priorities with a new tagline and revamped mission: “Empowering sustainable decisions.”

GRI is best known for creating sustainability reporting guidelines to which many large companies hew. GRI's framework provides metrics and methods for measuring and reporting sustainability-related impacts and performance. The goal is not just to encourage and improve sustainability reporting, but to standardize it across sectors and borders.

But as any sustainability executive knows well, reporting for reporting’s sake can be shortsighted, a waste of precious time and resources. As part of its new strategy, GRI “envisions a future beyond reports, where information from sustainability reporting empowers decision making throughout organizations,” in the words of Michael Meehan, GRI’s CEO.

The organization’s new five-year plan, through 2020, will focus on four areas:

  • “Enabling smart policy” to support sustainability reporting and disclosure around the world.
  • Continuing to grow its global community of reporters and “better reporting.”
  • “Moving beyond reporting” by helping companies extract more value from the sustainability reporting process.
  • Leveraging technology and big data “to enable others to succeed based on its standards.”

</p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p>GRI's new four-part strategic focus</p>
Many of these ideas have been brewing since Meehan arrived at GRI headquarters last summer with a background in venture capital and as a tech entrepreneur. In August, for example, my colleague Heather Clancy reported that Meehan wanted to focus “on creating a platform that allows data to be shared and combined with other metrics far more easily, to create valuable new insights.”

In the run-up to today’s announcement, I spoke with Meehan, whom I’d previously interviewed last fall, about GRI’s new strategic focus and some of its upcoming plans.

“The original idea of GRI succeeded very, very well,” he began. “Originally, the idea for the organization was to make corporate sustainability reporting mainstream. And in some areas of the world, it definitely is.” GRI reporters are now in 93 countries.

Beyond that, the organization focused on working with governments around the world to promote sustainability in policy — everything from human rights to corruption to climate change.

“We're referenced in 27 countries,” said Meehan. “We work through the United Nations and other partners. We even have a role in foreign direct investment, where countries are putting billions into emerging markets, and they fund GRI activities in those regions.”

A bucket of fish

Since arriving at GRI, Meehan has been hell-bent to take it “beyond reporting.” To do that, he knows that organizations such as his need to partner more effectively with the full ecosystem of sustainability organizations, both in and out of the reporting field.

“You have this bucket of fish, and there's a lot of fish in that bucket that are all doing something slightly different," he said. “We all have the same end goal around transparency and corporate trust. But the organizations were not really getting along, not collaborating nearly enough.

“I think it's up to GRI to change the game a little bit, so these organizations can collaborate and can innovate together to be able to move the sustainability market along much further and faster than it ever could before.”

Meehan wouldn’t name his would-be collaborators, but anyone in the field knows some likely swimmers in GRI’s “bucket”: CDP, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the International Integrated Reporting Council and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, among other leaders in sustainability reporting.

Can Meehan get them all swimming in the same direction? It’ll be no small challenge.

“We're heading towards a market of more standards and frameworks, not less,” he explained. “And I think unless we change the nature of what GRI does and help these organizations build new standards and frameworks on a common platform, much like technology standards do, then we're in for a world of fragmentation, and that's not going to help anybody.”

Building a platform

Meehan frequently invokes the technology sector from which he came to illustrate how creating common platforms and languages allow markets to flourish. The dynamic programming language Javascript, one of the most popular programming languages on the Web, is a favorite example.

</p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p>Michael Meehan, CEO of GRI</p>
Meehan wants GRI to do something similar for sustainability: “When you have a market that has everybody doing different things and there's no common platform, then there's no learning. You don't learn from the data that you have. But if you are all connected in some way to a platform, then you can build great things.”

He sees GRI as the platform builder. “It's a shift for GRI to say, ‘We're not going to be the innovator in the marketplace. You guys be the innovator. We'll provide you with the data platform and the standards to be able to build some really amazing things. We want to help you do that, not have this false competition in the marketplace.'”

Doing these things will require the organization, with about 75 employees in its Amsterdam headquarters, to revamp itself. “It requires completely new expertise and new offices that GRI does not currently have,” said Meehan. “The funding model has changed. The organizational model has changed. The governance model has changed. It's a significant change for GRI.”

Despite the magnitude of the change, some of this will unfold in short order, with further developments coming in the next few weeks, he said. “You'll see new business units and new services that are focused around the use of data and knowledge and intelligence of sustainability information for particular uses.”

Meehan added, “We will have an announcement coming out very, very shortly on that.”