Third-Generation GRI Guidelines Shine a Beacon for Sustainability Reporters

Third-Generation GRI Guidelines Shine a Beacon for Sustainability Reporters

"G3" stands for the third generation of Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, which provide a framework for corporations and other organizations to report on their social, environmental, and economic performance. Almost immediately after releasing the second incarnation of the guidelines in 2002, GRI began preparing to revamp them by conducting a Structured Feedback Process (SFP) from July 2003 through March 2004 to gather opinions from GRI stakeholders.

"Everything we're doing with G3 stems from the advice we got from the Structured Feedback Process," said Alyson Slater, GRI's associate director of communications. "What we heard unanimously from around the globe was that GRI really needs to not just put the Indicators out there but also give guidance on the reporting process itself."

"'Tell us how to do it,' our stakeholders told us, 'we need a lighthouse, a beacon to illuminate the path and we'll do the work,'" Slater said. "The Structured Feedback respondents didn't tell us how to make improvements -- they just said they need help with the application of the guidelines."

GRI divided this task into three work streams: Reporting as a Process, Relationships and Harmonization, and Clarity and Purpose of Indicators. Unique amongst the three was the Reporting as a Process Working Group (RPWG) in that it was not mandated to look at the GRI Indicators (the individual elements that get reported) at all, but was asked to resolve the question of how to make the process of reporting easier.

"The group jumped immediately onto the Reporting Principles that comprise Part B of the current Guidelines, which reporters often skip over and go directly to the Indicators -- we're not aware of anyone who's figured out a way to use the Principles in a really applied sense," explained Ms. Slater. "The RPWG really wanted to bring the Principles to life by making them a much more integral part of the Guidelines."

"They cut out a couple of the principles and reorganized them into two groups: one cluster to help you figure out what to report information-wise, and the other group to help you figure out how to report -- by talking to whom?; in what timeframe?; in what medium?; how far down the supply chain?" Slater said. "And they created application tests for each Principle."

The Relationships and Harmonization Work Stream consisted of several less formal consultations, including one that gathered mainstream buy- and sell-side analysts for two meetings.

"We had been advised in the Structured Feedback Process and through more ad hoc feedback that in order for sustainability reporting to really scale up, you've got to get the attention of mainstream investors, so we attempted to do so with G3," said Slater. "Some of the analysts had never heard of GRI before, but they opened their minds up a little bit to non-financial information and told us what would need to happen to make such information a part of their investment research or recommendations."

Future consultations of the Relationships and Harmonization Work Stream will address how to streamline GRI with other sustainability initiatives, such as the United Nations Global Compact or socially responsible investment (SRI) indexes.

"Companies have multiple commitments -- what we don't want is a different communication standard for each and every one of these," said Slater. "The question is, how can we use the Guidelines as a common communications platform to help harmonize these various commitments -- for example by cross-referencing GRI guidelines to an SRI survey."

Another criticism identified through Structured Feedback was the seeming schizophrenia of the Guidelines, which read as if a different group wrote each of the sections (economic, environmental, and social -- the three pillars of sustainability). In fact, this is exactly how the Guidelines were composed.

The Indicators Working Group (IWG), the work stream with the largest number of people and volume of work, is therefore anchored by one overarching group of 16 people responsible for the big picture of creating balance for the Indicators. Underneath this group is a series of six Advisory Groups (AGs), each comprised of eight to 15 experts on specific issues such as environmental pollution and human rights.

"The Structured Feedback identified a demand for comparability between reports, so the first thing we did was to create a technical protocol defining the units of measurement for every single indicator in draft format -- basically, we wrote the recipe behind the Indicators," said Slater. "The SFP also identified the social indicators as too airy, too qualitative -- not specific enough, not concise or precise enough, not eliciting the sorts of answers that people wanted."

The responsibility of identifying which metrics to use and how to compile them, creating technical protocols, negotiating Indicator wording, and deciding how many Indicators to include as well as which to retain and which to delete falls on the AGs. They will feed this work to the IWG, which is meeting in mid-October to put it all in a framework.

The Technical Advisory Committee will then meet in early November to view a first draft of the G3 Guidelines, and the GRI Board and Council will meet in mid-November issue their stamps of approval.

"It's going to unfold quite fast," said Slater. "We will launch the G3 draft for a 90-day comment period open to the public on January 1, 2006."

"There is quite a due process -- every comment we receive gets analyzed and can affect what happens with the guidelines, which are therefore by no means set in stone when released," she expounded. "Comments from the public may reinforce that we're on the right track or they may say, 'you guys are way off the mark!'"