Tuesday, July 28, 2020

GRI Standards: Sector Standards: Back on the Map

This is another short(!) post in the GRI Standards series – an anatomical dissection of the Exposure Draft of the new GRI Universal Standards and what it means for reporters and report users. This fifth post is all about sectors. You’ll recall that Sector Standards were a thing a long while ago at GRI, and a number of Sector Standards were developed. Then it stopped. 

It’s clear that sectors enable segregation of companies into categories that often share the same context and same issues. That’s why there are so many sector associations, several of which have developed their own sustainability and reporting standards (in addition to bespoke Codes of Conduct and sustainability initiatives). IPIECA, for example, the oil and gas industry association, has a sustainability reporting manual for its members, now in its fourth edition. The World Steel Association has a sustainability reporting indicators guide for its members. The Responsible Business Alliance (for companies from the electronic, retail, toy and auto sectors) has a guide for transparency in procurement for its members. Cosmetics Europe has a sustainability guide for its members, that includes sustainability reporting with recommended indicators.The Better Buildings Partnership in the UK has a guide on reporting and metrics for its members. And the list goes on. 

(By the way, the High Meadows Institute recently released a super-useful Business Leadership in Society Database of global partnerships and industry associations with detailed profiles of each that can help you check out what’s happening in your sector anywhere in the world, and companies that subscribe to these initiatives.) 

Sectors is definitely a thing. And Larry Fink did not mince words when he wrote to companies that Blackrock is investing in, requiring them to publicly disclose using SASB Standards. SASB (Sustainability Accounting Standards Board) as you probably know, was established in 2011 and has developed a list of 77 sector-aligned Standards designed to encourage companies to report on financially material sustainability topics within their corporate reporting for investors. Originally targeted at the U.S. market, SASB believes you cannot get enough of a good thing and therefore now promotes these standards globally. With 77 Standards, they pretty much cover the sector spectrum. 

Time to let GRI have their say. I directed a few innocent questions to GRI expert-in-chief, Bastian Buck, Director of Standards. 

ME: What’s the point in developing sector standards? Hasn’t SASB already done this work? 
BASTIAN: "The Sector Standards complete and strengthen the GRI Standards. One of the main criticisms of sustainability reporting and of GRI has been the lack of detailed guidance for determining materiality, so we are addressing that through the Sector Standards. It’s important to remember that we are not changing the approach on stakeholder engagement, and companies should continue consulting stakeholders on materiality. Our Standards will define what is likely to be material in each sector. We don’t want to prescribe, but there is evidence that certain topics will be material by sector and GRI wants to ensure that these will be considered as part of any materiality assessment." 

ME: Why not simply reference the SASB Standards and not waste a whole lot of money and time reinventing the wheel? 
BASTIAN: "It’s not about entering into a competition about what’s financially material, we see ourselves as building on what others have done in this space. We don’t want to start with a blank sheet of paper and that is why there is stronger emphasis on research and existing sources in this program. At the heart of the whole rationale for GRI’s standard setting and therefore also the sector program is the point that GRI focuses on impacts on others, not primarily on the risks to companies or issues that affect them. This necessitates the consideration of a wider set of topics than ESG topics considered by SASB. It is likely that we will observe that the gap between the two offerings in terms of topics covered is considerable. The reason is a fundamental difference: we look at a much wider set of considerations. To ensure we don’t lose sight of the potential overlaps and alignments, we have included SASB in our first pilot project which looks to resources such as SASB as an input to the process. We expect to see considerable if not complete overlap for most sectors and a SASB representative was included in the first pilot project for the GRI Oil and Gas Sector Standard."  

ME: There are also several sector standards developed by industry associations such as IPIECA. Why not simply refer to those where they exist and/or encourage associations to develop these where they do not? 
BASTIAN: “We recognize the strong work done in this space by many sectors, and we hope to collaborate with them as we do with SASB, IPIECA and other relevant players. It’s important to remember that industry associations may not have the same multi-stakeholder impact-driven focus. Often their reference point is regulatory considerations. Remember, industry associations are industry led. Our role is to ensure balance across all stakeholder expectations with our Sector Standards.” 

ME: How long will it take to develop a full set of Sector Standards? How many sectors are expected to be covered? 
BASTIAN: “We are currently piloting three sector standards – Oil and Gas , Coal , and Agriculture and Fishing. The idea is to scale relatively quickly with 5 – 10 standards being developed concurrently at any given time to deliver a total of around 45 once the program is complete.” 

ME: Why make Sector Standards mandatory to be In Accordance? That means that some companies must report with the Sector Standards while others will not have to because they have not been developed yet. This is creating an uneven playing field for reporting over a long period of time. Why not make them optional / recommended? 
BASTIAN: “We believe we need to address one of the shortcomings of sustainability reporting, and that is that it’s too easy to avoid reporting on certain things. The Standard Setter has to play a role in this. We are not mandating the use of all the topics but only the use of the Sector Standard. At the end of the day, the requirement is for an organization to consider the topics described in the applicable Sector Standard. Each Standard will apply to all companies in a certain sector - so all companies in the same sector will be equal. This will make sustainability reporting more comprehensive and complete and help to address the the issue of underreporting of material topics. It can also be used as an engagement tool. We believe that having a reference point for the dialogue between stakeholders and companies is pivotal to leverage the true value of the transparency exercise for all stakeholders and society at large. It will be interesting also to see how the sector standards fuel further dialogue across industries – elevating certain issues so that they are not only a struggle for an individual company, but part of a wider set of considerations. The EU and OECD are already driving work in this direction.” 

And that concludes the Sector story for now. And if you want to see what the first one looks like, the Oil and Gas Sector Standard Exposure Draft is now open for consultation (until 6th October). It’s only an 87-page document including glossary and bibliography with 22 material topics for the sector to consider, so working through it should be a piece of cake. 

What do you think about Sector Standards? Is the rationale for a whole load of time and investment in this area entirely justified? Will it add value? Will this ensure that companies report on topics they have conveniently (or unwittingly) avoided in the past? Have your say before Sectors get locked down with the new Universal Standards. The Exposure Draft is open for comments until 9th September 2020

Stay tuned for loads of Sector Exposure Drafts coming your way in the not too distant future. In the meantime, don't go anywhere as I will soon be publishing the next and final post in this series on the Universal Standards and a few other changes that may not appear obvious at first glance. 

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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