Wednesday, July 29, 2020

GRI Standards: And Now For The Fine Print

If you have read all my posts on the Exposure Draft of the new GRI Universal Standards in this past fortnight, you are probably more boggly-minded than I am, and GRI Standards overload may have caused you to deplete all your stock of mint choc chip ice cream. I am predicting an ice cream world shortage as people start delving into the Exposure Draft and considering their positions. But don’t worry, we can always move to frozen yogurt as a stop gap. And, you will be pleased to know that this is the last post in this series, so you can get back to Netflix and home schooling.

A quick recap of what we covered so far:
Shape up or Shape Out: An overview of the proposed changes with a focus on the new In Accordance rules
Human Rights Quadrupled: A look at the way human rights have infiltrated the GRI Standards better than than stray cats in a fish farm
Materiality: You've been doing it all wrong: Description of the new materiality definition and its implications
Governance Galore: An overview of the way governance now governs
Sector Standards: Back on the Map: The re-entry of sector differentiation to underpin material disclosures

And if that's not enough, here is the fine print. This post will cover a few changes that I thought were a little odd, outside of the main changes I have highlighted so far.

Disclosure Requirement A-7: Provide a statement of use
This In Accordance mandatory disclosure requires reporting organizations to include a statement from someone on the highest governance body or most senior executive, using the wording in this example:
“The Board of Directors (or CEO) acknowledges responsibility for the following statement of use: The information reported by ABC Limited for the year ending 31 December 2020 has been prepared in accordance with the GRI Standards.”

In other words, the Chair or CEO must confirm that the report has been prepared in accordance with the GRI Standards. What’s the purpose of this? Isn’t the CEO statement that is a mandatory part of the report enough of an endorsement? I can understand a statement that requires the CEO to accept responsibility for the information contained in the report as an accurate reflection of the organization’s impacts and performance. Why make it about adherence to GRI Standards? Is it really expected that CEOs will go into detail about the way the Standards have been used? If this type of statement is required, then the Reporting Manager or Sustainability Lead should sign off. Or the assurers – isn’t that what they are paid for?

GRI virtuoso Bastian Buck, Chief of Standards explained:
BASTIAN: “There are a couple of trends here, and honestly, we are not sure if we have landed in the right place with this one – the GSSB has discussed this issue at length and would like to hear from stakeholders on this. GRI-based reporting is increasingly regulated in different ways, for example, for listing on Stock Exchanges. Many jurisdictions are using GRI as recommended options for compliance with reporting requirements. Stakeholders and regulators want to know what this means and whether company’s GRI reporting is living up to expectations. They want clarity that the reporting standards have been applied in the way organizations promise, including application of the reporting principles and disclosure of material impacts. This Statement of Use requirement is modeled after what other standard setters have done. Often it can be achieved through the involvement of a third party who performs all the checks and enables the Board or CEO to make such a statement. But I agree this is an area where we need more discussion. There was not 100% consensus on this. On the one hand, we need to respond to the expectation of regulators; on the other hand, we do not want to overburden reporting companies with disclosure that does not add value.”

My view is that if a company is publishing a report, the CEO, who reports to the Board of Directors, must stand by the fact that this report is published in their name and that the claims made in the report are accurate. The CEO introductory message, which is part of the report, reinforces the CEO’s accountability for the report content. I do not think we need the CEO to say: “Just in case you were wondering, we have done what we claimed to have done.”

The contact point has disappeared 
In the current GRI Standards, Disclosure 102-53 requires the organization to state a contact point for questions regarding the report. The new Universal Standards Exposure Draft removes this. I found this really weird. Reporting is an engagement tool. Surely reporters must provide a channel for engagement - somewhere to direct your inquiries to? I occasionally write to companies about things I notice in their reports, and I do so using the contact point they publish. More often than not, I get a response.

Now, some companies offer a generic email address – such as or This is fine, and assumes these emails will be monitored by members of the reporting team. Not everyone wants to make their individual work email public, given the amount of spam and other rubbish you get via email. Ideally, I like to see the name of a person and a job title. Take this good example from Man’s 2019 CR Report:

Although the email is generic, the name of the senior person accountable for the report is included.

GRI maestro Bastian Buck, Chief of Standards explained:
BASTIAN: “We removed the contact point disclosure because we didn’t feel it was serving the purpose as intended. Most companies include generic emails. Feedback we have received indicates that it is often difficult for stakeholders to get through to the relevant contact in the reporting organization The information can be found on the organization's website and organizations can still report it if they wish.”

I say: BRING THE CONTACT POINT BACK! I think it is both useful and a signal that companies invite feedback and queries.

Disclosure REP-3 Reporting period and frequency 
This disclosure in the Exposure Draft requires organizations to specify the reporting period, and the reporting frequency (both are in the current standards) and also “if the organization has audited consolidated financial statements or financial information filed on public record, specify the reporting period for its financial reporting and provide an explanation if it does not align with the period for its sustainability reporting”.
This last part is new. The additional guidance states: "The organization should align the reporting period for its sustainability reporting with the reporting period for its other statutory and regulatory reporting, in particular, its financial reporting." 

I see this as another troubling consequence of force-fitting sustainability reporting into financial reporting frameworks to meet the needs of money markets. The timescale required for sustainability reporting may not align with financial accounting for many and varied reasons. As long as a company is reporting consistently, and on a regular frequency, and within a reasonable time-frame after the close of the reporting period, that works for me. While there is obviously a linkage (usually created by investors or investment analysts, for example, who analyze environmental performance normalized to revenue – a useless comparison, in my view), I think sustainability reporting serves different needs and is subject to different review and approval pressures, and does not need to be dictated by the money market calendars. On the contrary, there is benefit in all companies reporting a calendar year on sustainability, which is far more comparable than different financial year periods.

What is vastly more important, in my view, is the publication date. Companies should be encouraged to improve their reporting efficiency and ensure they publish within a reasonable time after the end of the sustainability reporting period – ideally six months. I think that the requirement of a disclosed publication date should be included in the new Universal Standards, pretty much like the example of Man’s report shown above. Their sustainability reporting year is calendar 2019, the report was published June 2020. Their Annual Report was published in March 2020.

GRI guru Bastian Buck, Chief of Standards explained:
BASTIAN: “Companies have numerous reporting requirements. All this information only makes a lot of sense if stakeholders have comprehensive information available. We have to bring this whole practice into a regular rolling schedule and that may include the integration of non-financial into financial reporting. We see it as a necessity to co-locate these disclosures. It’s not about monetizing everything, but it’s important that stakeholders have the whole picture.”

I disagree. But you know why. I said so above. But what do YOU think? Have your say on this point and other points made in this post and other posts, and anything else in the Exposure Draft that I didn’t get to in this series of reviews. The Exposure Draft is open for comments until 9th September 2020.

And that’s a wrap for the time being. This concludes six aspects of the new GRI proposals, all of which have implications for reporters and report users. Overall, I welcome this initiative, the new structure of the 101,102,103 Standards makes sense to me, key principles and definitions have been clarified in useful ways and some new areas of emphasis will support improved reporting on different topics. On the other hand, some of the proposals place unnecessary burden on reporting companies, and some don’t go far enough. It will be interesting to see how this plays out and what makes the final cut.

I’d like to thank Bastian Buck and Laura Espinach for their time and insights and their endless patience with me in a discussion with covered even more ground that I have been able to record in these posts. It’s been a fascinating exercise for me, a self-professed reporting geek, and I hope it’s useful for you.

Stay safe, stay well, stay optimistic! 

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Owner/Manager of Beyond Business Ltdan inspired Sustainability Strategy and Reporting firm having supported 107 client reports to date; author of three books and several chapters on Sustainability Reporting and the Human Resources connection to CSR; frequent chair and speaker at sustainability events and judge in several sustainability awards programs each year. Contact me via Twitter , LinkedIn or via Beyond Business

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