1st in Series: The Software / IT Services Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

SERIES INTRODUCTION 
GRI & SASB In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

Notes from the G&A Institute Team on the series of commentaries by members of the G&A Sustainability Report Analyst Interns…

With the recent publication of the much-anticipated “Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends 2018” issued by US SIF showing that ESG has really hit the capital markets’ mainstream — with $1-in-$4 in the US (by professional investment managers now incorporating ESG).  And, with the recent petition urging mandatory ESG reporting — submitted to the Securities & Exchange Commission by institutional investors  — he need to develop a more standardized framework for corporate ESG reporting is more pressing than ever before.

A recent discussion paper — “Investor Agenda For Corporate ESG Reporting” — with inputs from the CFA Institute, ICGN, PRI, CERES, GSIA, GIIN, and the UNEP-FI — further highlights this issue.

Among other things, the discussion paper emphasizes the need for participants of the Corporate Reporting Dialogue (participants include reporting standard setters – GRI, SASB, CDP, IIRC,CDSB, ISO, FASB, and IFRS) to deliver on their promise to work together to develop a more unified agenda on ESG reporting.

As part of our company’s role as the GRI Data Partner in the USA, UK and Republic of Ireland, G&A Institute’s Sustainability Report Analyst-Interns analyze thousands of sustainability reports each year and contribute the information to the GRI’s Sustainability Disclosure Database. This is the largest publicly-accessible sustainability disclosure database in the world (with now over 50,000 sustainability reports included, dating back to the start of the GRI).

Many of the corporate reports the G&A analysts process use the GRI Standards — and a number have now started to implement aspects of the SASB Standards as well in their disclosure and reporting process, depending on their sector and industry categories.

In their ongoing work, G&A’s Sustainability Report Analyst-Interns have been comparing the two standards for disclosure in specific industries as they carefully examine the corporate reports, and consider two standards’ alignment, similarities and differences.

In this series G&A’s Sustainability Report Analyst-Interns share their own perspectives as they have analyzed reports and noticed similarities and differences.

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We begin our series of shared perspectives with the perspectives of Minalee Busi, looking at the Software and IT Services Industry.

Comments by Minalee Busi – G&A Sustainability Report Analyst-Intern

Discussion regarding sustainability reporting is usually more focused in context of resource intensive industries, and the Software and IT Services sector is often left out.

With sustainability being a major factor in competitive advantage and investor decision-making, Software and IT Services companies need to re-think their sustainability reporting strategies, if they are not already at that point.

SASB identifies a limited number of material issues for the industry for corporate reporting, such as:
• environmental footprint of hardware infrastructure,
• data privacy and freedom of expression,
• data security,
• recruiting and managing a diverse skilled workforce, and
• managing systematic risks from technology disruptions.

Environmental Disclosures

The disclosure suggestions set forth by both the SASB and GRI Standards are in fact quite comparable, and in alignment with each other for some topics.

For example, both standards suggest companies to report on the energy consumed (both renewable and non-renewable) — but with different reporting boundaries.

SASB suggests reporting consumption within the organization — and the GRI Standards ask to additionally include consumption outside of the company.

However, GRI Standards also include disclosures in terms of energy reduction due to conservation and efficiency initiatives — which SASB disclosures do not include.

Similarly, though both the disclosure frameworks require information about water withdrawal and consumption, GRI also expects detailed reporting on water discharge into different water bodies, with information such as whether water was treated before discharge and whether they follow international standards on discharge limits.

The GRI Standards also include disclosure on recycling — which although not very comprehensive, is completely non-existent in the SASB sector disclosure.

Given the increasing e-waste generated by the IT industry, both GRI and SASB could consider including more detailed disclosures in this area for addressing material risks companies face.

Addressing Data Security/Privacy

In terms of data security, both standards include suggestions of disclosures related to data breaches and the number of users affected. But since SASB disclosures are designed to be industry-specific standards, more detailed reporting requirements in terms of data privacy and freedom of speech are found in SASB — including information on secondary usage of user data and monetary losses as a result of legal proceedings associated with user privacy.

Other such additional detailed areas of sector-/industry-specific disclosures by SASB which are not specified in the GRI standards are topics under managing systematic risks — such as performance issues, downtime and service disruptions due to technological impediments; and, activity metrics related to data storage, processing capacity and cloud-computing.

Disclosures with respect to monetary losses due to legal proceedings around intellectual property protection and competitive behaviour can also be found in the SASB Standards.  These disclosures can be loosely be aligned with the GRI disclosures under non-compliance with laws in the socio-economic arena.

S/Social Reporting

With respect to the “S” (social domain) of corporate ESG reporting, both of the standards suggest reporting on employee diversity, with GRI focusing on categories such as age, gender and minority representation and SASB additionally suggesting reporting on data related to the percentage of employees who are (1) foreign nationals and (2) located offshore.

Interestingly, although SASB disclosures are industry specific standards and the IT industry is mainly dependent on human and intellectual capital, there is no specific suggestion of reporting on training and education of employees.

GRI Standards appear to be filling this gap with suggestions of detailed disclosures on average training hours, upskilling and transition assistance programs and information related to employee performance reviews.

Sustainability Reporting Criteria

The GRI Standards have extensive sustainability reporting criteria, of which a major portion of the disclosures fall under the “General Disclosures” — which include materiality, measurement approaches, consistency and comparability of reporting, external assurance, supply chain information, sustainability strategies, and ethics and integrity. This to me is seemingly more transparent as compared to the SASB Standards.

Another such area is stakeholder engagement, which exists in the SASB Standards only in the form of percentage of employee engagement.

The category of Discussion and Analysis under SASB Standards does require reporting on strategic planning about each of the material topics identified, which can be mapped to the Management Approach (DMA) disclosures recommended under each material Topic-specific disclosure area of the GRI Standards.

Alignment – and Gaps

With the above overview, the SASB disclosures and GRI Standards can be seen in alignment with respect to some material topics while having some gaps in others.

However, since both the standards are developed to address the needs different stakeholders – with GRI aiming a broader set of stakeholders and the SASB majorly targeting mainstream U.S. investors — they should not be seen by report preparers as being in competition with each other.

I believe that the efforts of the CDP and important sustainability reporting standards-setters such as GRI and SASB will certainly be welcomed by companies and other stakeholders now struggling to keep up, but the question remains if such collaborations can ultimately lead to the desired standardised sustainability reporting framework that many investors actively seek.

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Note:  This commentary is part of a series sharing the perspectives of G&A Institute’s Analyst-Interns as they examine literally thousands of corporate sustainability / responsibility reports.  Click the links below to read the other posts in the series:

Tune In to the Corporate Reporting Dialogue — An Initiative That Will Impact Investors, Corporate Reporters and Stakeholders

by Hank Boerner, Chairman – G&A Institute

Tune in to the [just launched] Corporate Reporting Dialogue – whether you are an investor, or company manager, or stakeholder with interest in corporate disclosure and structured sustainability / responsibility reporting.

This important dialogue was formally begun in June at the annual International Corporate Governance Network (ICGN) conference – the effort is spreadheaded by the International Integrated Reporting Council (ICCR).

The “dialogue” is organized to include the group of prominent independent organizations that exert varying degrees of influence on (among other things) the valuation and reputation of the world’s public and private companies … by inviting, mandating, suggesting and in various ways requesting that corporate managers look to their framework or standard or approach for their ESG disclosure and reporting.

Compliance with some of the standards of the organizations that gathered are in some cases mandatory (FASB, IASB for periodic or immediate public company financial disclosure & reporting); others are voluntary for the most part (the GRI, now the most widely used for global corporate and institutional sustainability reporting); some are voluntary logically leaning toward becoming the industry norm and perhaps at some point, mandatory (SASB for corporate sustainability reporting in the USA); some have created a global norm that public companies ignore at their risk (CDP for water, carbon and supply chain disclosure).

Gathering in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, the alphabet soup of leading ESG framework purveyors and standards setters came together to talk about important topics: (1) the coming of integrated reporting (for disclosure related to financial and ESG performance and more), (2) improving the quality and consistency or comparability of the various standards and reporting frameworks that corporations are using or adopting for their reporting, and (3) these (as described) and other approaches that asset owners and manager are using to make portfolio decisions.

“More certainty” for corporates and investors is one of the worthy objectives being debated.  More certainty in sustainability reporting…greater coherence among frameworks and standards…and the subsequent investor analysis and use of same?  All users of the standards, frameworks, related requirements, and analytical approaches will cheer that worthy goal on.

The organizations now collaborating under the umbrella of the Corporate Reporting Dialogue include:

  • The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI, the most widely used framework for sustainability reporting);
  • CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project);
  • the USA’s financial accounting standards FASB, authorized by the Congress to set accounting and financial reporting standards;
  • the counterpart international body, IASB for global (non-USA) accounting standards;
  • the very influential International Organization for Standardization (ISO – you know them for ISO 9001 etc.);
  • Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB);
  • International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC, the initiator of the dialogue);
  • International Public Sector Accounting Standards Board (IPSASB);
  • the relative newcomer and increasingly influential player, based in the USA, the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB, which is now in the process of generating sustainability reporting standards for various sectors and industries).

Connectivity is Key:  The collaborating organizations are aiming to develop practical ways to align the direction, content and development of the various reporting frameworks, standards, etc. The initial deliverable is going to be a document highlighting the “connectivity” of the various frameworks and standards….and the relevance to the coming of integrated reporting.

In the announcement, the IIRC organizers said that “…in an interconnected world, isolated change is insufficient to reflect the complexities of modern business and investment decisions…the CRD is a collaboration to promote greater cohesion and efficiency, rebalancing reporting in favor of the reader, helping to reestablish the connection between a business and its principal stakeholders…”

Note:  Chair of the CRD is Mrs. Hugette Labelle, Chair of Transparency International and board member of IIRC.

In announcing the initiative, Paul Druckman, IIRC CEO stated: “The purpose of the CRD is to strengthen cooperation, coordination and alignment between key organizations with Integrated Reporting as the umbrella. The need for this is continuously articulated in my discussions with companies, investors, regulators and other stakeholders across the world.

“At the creation of the IIRC we set out to be a catalyst for an evolution in corporate reporting – the formation of the CRD is at the heart of this, and is a significant step towards achieving our goal.”

Tune in and follow the new CRD — whether you are an investor, or corporate manager, or other stakeholder — this conversation will affect the future of corporate sustainability disclosure and reporting.

Information at:  http://www.theiirc.org/2014/06/17/corporate-reporting-dialogue-launched-responding-to-calls-for-alignment-in-corporate-reporting/