16 Feb 16

20 years on: Is sustainability reporting actually making a difference?

Paper_Files.jpgThe following article was published on the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)'s website last week. 

It’s a question all sustainability practitioners face: is sustainability reporting making a difference? At GRI, we believe the answer is yes. But we also know there’s still much more that needs to be done to create a sustainable economy and world that lifts people out of poverty while preserving our precious resources. Still, it’s important to keep in mind how much progress we’ve collectively made in a short period of time.​

​When GRI first started out in 1997, only a handful of the world’s companies reported on sustainability. The first GRI Global Conference was actually convened as a means of celebrating with the large, multi-stakeholder network of people who helped make the first version of the GRI Sustainability Reporting Guidelines a reality. Now, according to the KPMG Survey of Corporate Responsibility 2015, 74% of the world’s largest businesses (G250) use GRI for their sustainability reporting and thousands of other smaller businesses in over 90 countries follow suit.

With an eye toward our 5th Global Conference this coming May, we took a look back at previous conferences, and realized that each represents an important stage in how our understanding of sustainable development has evolved.

Our 1st Global Conference took place in 2006. 650 sustainability reports were registered in the GRI Sustainability Disclosure Database (GRI Database) that year. The theme for the conference, “Reporting: A measure of sustainability” states the obvious by modern thinking, but at the time we were championing something that very much needed to be said: organizations can only take action to improve their sustainability impacts once that have begun measuring and reporting on them. The fact that now, ten years, later this message goes without saying is a sign we have come far.

We registered nearly 1500 new reports in the GRI Database and at the 2nd Global Conference we got confirmation that we were on the right track. Just as many people were willing to travel to Amsterdam for the conference and GRI’s message had also evolved. By then we were talking about sustainability reporting as a ‘critical form of the transparency needed to catalyze sustainable development.’ 

By 2010, the sustainability reporting movement had picked up a real head of steam. We registered more than 2500 new reports in the GRI Database that year. The 3rd Global Conference had the theme “Rethink. Rebuild. Report.” our message that organizations should not see sustainability reporting as a tick box exercise or as a means of greenwashing. More than 1200 people attended from 77 countries, confirming that sustainability reporting had become a global movement. But we walked away from this conference having reached the conclusion that it’s not enough for organizations to report, if they aren’t reporting on the things that really matter.

In 2013, GRI registered nearly 5000 reports in the GRI Database and during the 4th Global Conference we launched the fourth version of the GRI Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, G4, with its focus on materiality, reporting on what matters and where it matters. This was a major turning point in sustainability. More than 1600 people attended the 2013 conference, including 171 speakers from every corner of the globe.

How sustainability reporting has evolved
On reflection we’d say that the sustainability reporting movement can be characterized by three M’s. The first is measurement, which represents the infancy of sustainability reporting then, when the main goal was merely to get organizations to start keeping track of their use of non-financial resources. The second M is materiality, the first evolution of sustainability reporting. At that point in time, a significant number of organizations had taken up the practice of reporting and collectively we realized that measuring and reporting only helps when organizations are transparent about their most significant impacts. This has led to the third M, which stands for moving beyond reportsand represents our current phase of development, where we begin unlocking data from lengthy reports and using it to inform the decisions needed to create a sustainable economy and world.

2016 and beyond
Today, we’re working to catalyze a new era of sustainability. In a little less than 100 days, GRI will host the 5th Global Conference, Empowering Sustainable Decisions. We’re going to continue the work we’ve done in the past but now, looking forward, we are envisioning a future beyond reports, where organizations draw sustainability into the heart of operations, to inform decision making across the entire business. And as always, the sustainability professionals on hand at this year’s conference will be grappling with the pressing issues of our time, like climate change, human rights and corruption, while taking a hard look in the mirror and asking ourselves whether or not we’re making a real difference.

Join us at GRI’s 5th Global Conference, Empowering Sustainable Decisions, 18 – 20 May 2016. For more information and to register visit our conference website here.

To view the original article, please visit GRI's website.

Greenstone is an Organisational Stakeholder of GRI and has been selected to hold a masterclass on 'How to breath life into your sustainability data' at the GRI Global Conference. 



GRI , Frameworks