Recycling – The Circular Economy: Admirable Efforts, With Significant Challenges As The Efforts Expand & Become More Complex for Businesses

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

In these closing days of the year 2018, of course, we’ll be seeing shared expert perspectives on the year now ending and a look into the new year, 2019.  Sustainable Brands shared one person’s perspectives on three sustainability trends that are gaining momentum heading into 2019.

The commentary is authored by Renee Yardley, VP-Sales & Marketing of Rolland Inc., a prominent North American commercial & security paper manufacturer established in 1882. The company strives to be an environmental leader in the pulp and paper industry. A wide range of fine paper products is made using renewable energy, recycled fiber, and de-inked without the use of chlorine.  Rolland started making recycled paper in 1989 and adopted biogas as an energy source in 2004. The company is privately-owned and headquartered in Quebec, Canada.

The trends the author explains, do of course, affect users of all types of paper products — but also are useful for businesses in other sectors & industries.  He sees:  (1) a shifting of global recycling mindsets and in the circular economy; (2) more open collaboration and partnerships for impactful change; and (3) the need for more measurement and efforts to quantify impact.

Rolland is a paper supply company and so there is a focus on recycled (post-consumer) paper, fiber, forests, the recycled paper process, moving toward zero waste, municipal recycling in North America, and so on.

On recycling:  we are seeing reports now of problems arising in the waste stream; in the USA, municipalities are calling for a reduction of waste and automating processes (to help reduce costs).  There are new on-line marketplaces as well for buying and selling recovered items.  The “market solution” is a great hope for the future as we continue to use paper products (we are not quite a paperless society, are we?).

Part of the issues recycling advocates are dealing with:  China is restricting the import of recyclable materials (think:  that paper you put at curbside at home of business).  Consumers can be encouraged to reduce consumption but paper is paper and we all use it every day – so new approaches are urgently needed!

That leads to the second trend – developing and leveraging partnership & open collaboration:  Yardley writes that collaboration across the spectrum of an organization’s stakeholders can help to address supply-chain wide sustainability if an organization can “understand the wider system” it is operating in (citing Harvard Business Review).  And, if an organization can learn to work with people you haven’t worked with before.

Rolland, for example, leverages biogas as a main energy source, partnering with a local landfill to recover methane (since 2004).  This trend is on the rise, with the EU biogas plants expanding by 200% (2009-2015).

And then there is Measure and Manage:  Environmental measuring and reporting is an important part of a company’s sustainability journey – at the outset and continuing and at G&A Institute we stress the importance of reporting year-to-year results in a standardized format, such as in a GRI Standards report  — most important, including a GRI Content Index.

At the Sustainable Brands New Metrics conference in 2018, SAP explained that organizations integrating ESG objectives see higher employee retention, and minimizing of risk for investors.

Renee Yardley’s commentary is our Top Story choice for you this week – do read it and you’ll find excellent examples of how companies in various sectors (Ford, Microsoft, Starbucks, Patagonia, Unilever) are dealing with their sustainability commitments in the face of challenges posed.

Click here for more information on Rolland and its environmental / sustainability efforts and products.

 

This Week’s Top Story

Three Sustainability Trends Gaining Momentum for 2019
(Friday, December 14, 2018) Source: Sustainable Brands – In the spirit of looking ahead to 2019, we’ve identified three important societal trends for 2019, relating to sustainability in business…

The UN Sustainable Development Goals -– “What Matters” For 40 Sectors? G&A Institute’s Research Project Yields Key Data

by Hank BoernerG&A Institute Chair & Chief Strategist

  • An examination of materiality decisions made by 1,387 corporations in their sustainability / ESG reports on all 91 GRI G4 Specific Standard Disclosures, linked SDG Targets, and GRI Standards Disclosures 
  • Forty individual sector reports including the “Top GRI Indicators / Disclosures” and “Top SDG Targets” rankings for each sector are available for download at https://www.ga-institute.com/SDGsWhatMatters2018

Nearing the end of the 20th Century, the United Nations assembled experts to develop the eight Millennium Goals (the MDGs), to serve as blueprints and guides for public, private and social sector actions during the period 2000-2015 (the “new millennium”).

For “post-2015”, the more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (the now familiar SDGs) were launched with 17 goals and 169 targets.

These are calls to action for rich and poor and middle-income nations from 2015 out to the year 2030.  These ambitious efforts are focused on such societal issues as improving education and health; social protection; providing job opportunities; and encouraging greater environmental protection (global climate change clearly in focus!).

The 17 SDGs are numbered for themes – “No Poverty” is Goal #1; “Clean Water and Sanitation” is Goal #6; Gender Equality is Goal #5.

As the goals were announced after an exhaustive development process (ending in 2015), sovereign nations, regions, communities, corporations, academic institutions, and other societal stakeholders began “adopting” and embracing the goals, and developing action plans and programs related to the goals.

Numerous companies found (and are finding today) that the goals aligned with the long-term corporate strategies (and vice versa).

SDG strategies were and are being amended to align the goals with critical corporate strategies; actions and programs were formulated; partnerships were sought (corporate with government and/or social sector partners and so on).  And the disclosures about all of this began to appear in corporate and institutional GRI sustainability reports.

In the months following official launch, a wave of corporations began a more public discussion of the SDGs and their adoption of specific goals – those that were material in some way to the company’s strategies, operations, culture, stakeholders, geography…and other factors and characteristics.

As the SDGs were “adopted” and embraced, companies began quickly to examine the materiality of the SDGs relative to their businesses and the first disclosures were appearing in corporate sustainability reports.

To rank the materiality of the SDGs for 40 different sectors, the G&A Institute analyst team gathered 1,387 corporate GRI G4 Sustainability / ESG reports and examined the disclosure level of each on 91 Topic Specific Standard Disclosures.  The database of the reporters materiality decisions around GRI Indicators were then linked to the 169 SDG targets using the SDG Compass Business Indicators table.

The sectors include Electricity, Beverages, Banks, Life Insurance, Media, and many more classifications (the list is available on the G&A web platform with selections to examine highlights of the research for each sector).

The results:  we now have available for you 40 separate sector report highlights containing rankings of the SDG Targets’ and the GRI G4 Indicators & GRI Standards Disclosures for each sector which can be downloaded here:  https://www.ga-institute.com/SDGsWhatMatters2018

The research results are an excellent starting point for discussion and planning, a foundation for determining sector-specific materiality of the SDGs and the GRI KPIs and disclosures as seen through the lens of these 1,387 corporate reporters across 40 sectors.

This is all part of the G&A Institute’s “Sustainability Big Data” approach to understanding and capturing the value-added corporate data sets for disclosure and reporting.  The complete database of results is maintained by G&A Institute and is used for assisting corporate clients and other stakeholders in understanding relevant materiality trends.
We welcome your questions and feedback on the year-long research effort.

Thanks to our outstanding research team who conducted the intensive research: Team Research Leaders Elizabeth Peterson, Juliet Russell, Alan Stautz and Alvis Yuen.  Researchers Amanda Hoster, Laura Malo, Matthew Novak, Yangshengjing “UB” Qiu, Sara Rosner, Shraddha Sawant, and Qier “Cher” Xue. The project was architected and conducted under the direction of Louis Coppola, Co-Founder of G&A Institute.

There’s more information for you at: https://www.ga-institute.com/SDGsWhatMatters2018

More information on the SDGs is at: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/

Contact G&A Institute EVP Louis Coppola for information about how G&A can help your company with SDGs alignment at:  lcoppola@ga-institute.com

Eco-Efficiency Green Firm-Specific Advantages — L’Oréal Case Study

Guest Post by Laura Malo Yague, Sustainability Reports Data Analyst, G&A Institute

Introduction:

The scope of this case study is the analysis of the sustainability strategy of the French company L’Oréal, focused on the actions taken related to the Eco-Efficiency Green Firm – Specific Advantages.

Eco-Efficiency is a type of operational environmental practices that some companies try to develop and incorporate to their production processes and procedures, in order to mitigate their impact for the planet, the climate, natural resources and human life.

Through these practices, the companies aim to get a closed-loop production, by using innovation and sustainable technology for minimizing the resources and raw material consumption and reducing the carbon footprint.

Companies and firms can improve their products’ design and performance by introducing eco-efficiency advantages in their strategy. One perfect example is the current case of L’Oréal with the official release in 2013 of their Program for sustainability of L’Oréal: ‘Sharing Beauty With All .

Product-related environmental management capabilities and environmental design capabilities under eco-efficiency advantages help firms to integrate environmental concern throughout a product’s life cycle and achieve material eco-efficiency, energy efficiency, and operational efficiency . Following these guidelines, L’Oréal presented its program supported in four basic main pillars:
• Innovating Sustainability
• Producing Sustainability
• Living Sustainability
• Developing sustainability

About L’Oréal and the Eco-efficiency Green Firm-Specific-Advantage: ‘Sharing Beauty With All’

L’Oréal released its first sustainability report in 2006 after acquiring The Body Shop company. The company reports under the GRI Standards and also complies with UNGC guidelines.

It wasn’t until 2013 with the founding of its ambitious sustainability program, ‘Sharing Beauty With All’ — spearheaded by CEO Jean-Paul Argon — that sustainability practices within the company became an important part of the yearly agenda. “We have stepped up our metamorphosis to the new L’Oréal: more universal, more digital and more sustainable,” states Argon.

‘Sharing Beauty With All’ is divided into four pillars of sustainability each with its own particular targets aimed to be achieved by 2020.

L’Oréal has undertaken a profound transformation towards an increasingly sustainable model, to respond to its environmental and social impacts, as well as to the main challenges which the world is facing today.

The company’s strong ethical commitment, its ‘Sharing Beauty With All’ sustainability program, its policy of promoting diversity and the corporate philanthropy actions conducted with the support of the L’Oréal Foundation enables the Group to contribute to 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations.

L’Oréal has also been awarded a ‘A’ by the CDP two years in a row and rated 4.2 in FTSE .

Through its company-wide program L’Oréal has successfully proven that economic performance and sustainability practices are not mutually exclusive. The program aims to show that both practices can go hand in hand.

For example, in 2017, L’Oréal reduced its CO2 emissions by 73% while increasing its production by 33%.

The CEO has placed the Sustainability Department directly under his leadership. Previously, the department was within the communications and PR department. Argon has also set up bonus incentives for the managers. Thus, the managers must hit their sustainability targets in order to receive their bonuses. These two facts clearly show how serious Argon and L’Oréal are about becoming more sustainable.

L’Oréal Sustainability Evolution and Development

In 1909, Eugène Schueller founded L’Oréal when he developed the first commercialized hair dye. Although L’Oréal got its start in hair-color products, the company expanded into other beauty sectors. In 1963 the company became publicly-traded on the stock exchange and by 1980 L’Oréal had become world’s largest beauty company.

Through multiple acquisitions, the company has grown to reach 140 countries, catering to the needs of each specific culture. As one of the leaders in Personal & Household Goods products, the group is making tremendous progress towards reaching their 2020 sustainability targets .

The first step in the Corporate Social Responsibility path was taken in 1989. Cosmetics R&D industry implies the use of new chemical reactions and components which can be harmful for human skin. After years of controversial due to their research practices, L’Oréal completely ceased testing its products on animals 14 years before the regulation required, becoming pioneers supporting animal welfare.

L’Oréal has learned how to adapt to the new context with a strong company policy tackling crucial issues for the current society, by promoting diversity and inclusion. Also, to the new scenario that our planet presents, with the increasing danger of a worsen global warming, the already-known marine plastic invasion, the unstoppable fossil fuel combustion and the fear of a world with limited natural resources.

With its 2013 Sustainability Commitment, L’Oréal wants to achieve important goals by 2020. Among other actions completed, the company has contributed to the mitigation of the environmental impact with the implementation of different Eco-Efficiency Operational Green Firm-Specific Advantages .

For example, by reducing the CO2 emissions of its plants and distribution centers by 73%, in absolute terms, compared to 2005, while increasing its production volume by 33% within the same period. The group reinforced its ability to combine economic growth with ambitious climate commitments.

Moreover, the 76% of products launched during the last 2017 improved its environmental or social profile. Every time a new product is created or renovated, the Group considers its contribution to sustainability as well as its performance and profitability.

The number of people from underprivileged communities who gained access to employment through one of L’Oréal’s programmes at the end of 2017 was 53,505. The company’s goal is to reach 100,000 people by 2020.

Furthermore, the company has already conducted an assessment of the environmental and social impact of more than 91% of their brands.

Finally, other important challenge was the complete elimination of PVC its packaging by 2016.

We can see the L’Oréal trends by the development of Eco-efficiency Green FSAs and practices under two main pillars from the company sustainability strategy: ‘Producing Sustainability’ and ‘Innovating Sustainability’.

As explained, L’Oréal adopted 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development goals — most of them aligned with these two pillars (see exhibit 1); this, reinforcing the Company’s Eco-efficiency strategy focused on the development of more sustainable products by using more sustainable processes.

Some of the negative ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) hotspots from L’Oréal that they should take in account for improvement are the product packaging, which they state they are already working on, and the issue ofwater consumption.

Most of L’Oréal products contains many different single-use plastic and paper components, with the implications for the environment, from the extraction of natural resources all the way through to the disposal of the product.

Extracting finite natural resources to produce raw material depletes our resources and requires a significant amount of energy.

In addition, plastic and paper manufacturing process releases an immense amount GHG into the atmosphere.

Regarding the water issue, many of their products also involves water intensive processes along its entire life cycle. Therefore, L’Oréal is trying to reduce water consumption by 60% per finished product unit by 2020. Plastic extraction and cellulose treatment for the paper manufacturing, imply water uptake.
Conclusion

Nowadays, L’Oréal is the biggest beauty brand in the world, generating about 27.2 billion dollars in sales in 2017.

The adoption of this sustainability corporate policy by the company could initially imply big efforts for the group, such as, substantial upfront costs or important changes in the supply chain.

However, due to the important role that L’Oréal plays in the cosmetics industry market, the company can also have a positive and remarkable impact by mitigating CO2 emissions, decreasing fossil fuel use or reducing plastic use and pollution.
Any changes towards sustainability or eco-improvements will directly affect the L’Oréal ecological footprint, bringing great benefits for the environment and for all of us. L’Oréal states that

‘The path from fundamental research to the finished product involves an ultimate challenge, packaging innovation. This is what ensures that the product will be delivered in the best conditions of performance, safety and practicality’.

#  #  #

Author Laura Malo Yague is a full-time candidate in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management at Columbia University. She was graduated with a degree in Industrial Technical Engineering – Industrial Electronics in Spain and has seven years experience in Product and Project Management. She was a valued intern-analyst at G&A Institute in 2017.

From Laura, some additional background: From Spain to New York City — with a professional background of seven years working as an engineer and a great lover of the environment, I arrived in 2016 seeking for a change in my career path. During the last two years I have been training myself in Project Management, focused in monitoring and evaluation, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability at New York University (NYU).

I collaborated as a volunteer in the NGO ‘Engineering Without Borders’ for eight years participating in sustainability and development projects focused on environmental problems, eco-efficiency climate change and taking responsibility of our planet’s health, trying to do things better.

I love travelling with my ukulele, where I can combine my passions discover new cultures, meet people and enjoy the diversity of our planet. I would like to work in sustainability strategy to improve the accountability of market and industry process and development.

More information is at: https://www.ga-institute.com/about-the-institute/the-honor-roll/laura-malo-yague.html

Note to readers:  This content was prepared for completion of the Certification in Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Strategies offered by G&A Institute, with dual credentials from the Swain Center for Executive & Professional Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington Certificate. The course work is prepared by Professor Nitish Singh, Ph.D., founder and consultant at IntegTree LLC, and Associate Professor of International Business at St. Louis University, Boeing Institute of International Business. Information: http://learning.ga-institute.com/courses/course-v1:GovernanceandAccountabilityInstitute+CCRSS+2016/about

G&A Institute Research Results: 85% of the S&P 500® Index Companies Published Sustainability / Responsibility / CR / Citizenship Reports in 2017

By Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

One of the world’s most important benchmarks for equity investors is the S&P 500 Index®, a proprietary market-value weighted “basket” of the top stocks that represent about 80% of the U.S. equity markets according to the index owner, S&P Dow Jones Indices/McGraw Hill Financial.

Market Clout:  There are about US$8 trillion in Assets Under Management benchmarked to the index  – companies included in the index have a market-cap of US$6 billion or more (ticker:SPX).

More than six years ago the G&A Institute team decided to focus on the companies in the index to determine their level of (or lack of) ESG / Sustainability / CR / Citizenship disclosure and reporting.

Our first look-see was for year 2011 corporate reporting activities and after scouring the known sources  — each of the corporate websites, IR reports, printed reports, search engines results, connecting with companies and more —  we found just about 20% or about 100 of the large-cap index 500 companies were doing “something” along the lines of what we can describe today as structured reporting.  There were numerous brochure-type publications that did not qualify as a structured report of value to investors and stakeholders.

The GRI Was a Favored Framework – Then and Now
A good number of the early reporting companies were following the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework for reporting guidance (that was for G3 and G3.1 at the time), and some perhaps had some other form of reporting (such as publishing key ESG performance indicators on their website or in print format for stakeholders); GRI’s G4 was later embraced by the 500.  And now we move on to the GRI Standards, which we are tracking for 2018 reporting by the 500.

This initial research effort was a good bit of work for our analyst team because many of the companies simply did not announce or publicize the availability of their sustainability et al report. (Some still do not announce, even in 2017 and 2018!)

The response to our first survey (we announced the results in spring 2012) was very encouraging and other organizations began to refer to and to help publicize the results for stakeholders.

We were pleased that among the organizations recognizing the importance of the work was the GRI; we were invited to be the data partner for the United States, and then the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.  That comprehensive work continues and is complementary to the examination of the 500.

The 2011 Research Effort – Looking Back, The Tipping Point for Sustainability Reporting

Looking back, we can see that the research results were early indications of what was going on in the corporate and investment communities, as more asset owners and managers were adopting ESG / sustainability approaches, investment policies, engagement programs — and urging more public company managements to get going on expanded disclosure beyond the usual mandated financials (the “tangibles” of that day).

Turns out that we were at an important tipping point in corporate disclosure.

Investor expectations were important considerations for C-suite and board, and there was peer pressure as well within industries and sectors, as the big bold names in Corporate America looked left and right and saw other firms moving ahead with their enhanced disclosure practices.

And there was pressure from the purchasing side – key customers were asking their corporate supply chain partners for information about their ESG policies and practices, and for reports on same.  There was an exponential effect; companies within the 500 were, in fact, asking each other for such reports on their progress!

We created a number of unique resources and tools to help guide the annual research effort.  Seeing the characteristics and best practices of sustainability reporting by America’s largest and for the most part best-known companies we constantly expanded our “Sustainability Big Data” resources and made the decision to closely track S&P 500 companies’ public reporting — and feed the rich resulting data yield into our databases and widely share top-line results (our “Flash Report”).

The following year (2013) we tracked the 500 companies’ year 2012 reporting activities – and found a very encouraging trend that rang a bell with our sustainable investing colleagues:  a bit more than half of the 500 were now publishing sustainability et al reports.  Then in 2013, the numbers increased again to 72%…then 75%…then 81%…and now for 2017, we reached the 85% level.  The dramatic rise is clearly evident in this chart:

Note that there are minor annual adjustments in the composition of the S&P 500 Index by the owners, and we account for this in our research, moving companies in and out of the research effort as needed.

Louis Coppola, EVP of G&A Institute who designs and manages the analysis, notes:  “Entering 2018, just 15% of the S&P 500 declined to publish sustainability reports. The practice of sustainability reporting by the super-majority of the 500 companies is holding steady with minor increases year after year. One of the most powerful driving forces behind the rise in reporting is an increasing demand from all categories of investors for material, relevant, comparable, accurate and actionable ESG disclosure from companies they invest in, or might consider for their portfolio.

“Mainstream investors are constantly searching for larger returns and have come to the conclusion that a company that considers their material Environmental, Social, and Governance opportunities and risks in their long-term strategies will outperform and outcompete those firms that do not. It’s just a matter now of following the money.”

Does embracing corporate sustainability in any way impact negatively on the market performance of these large companies?  Well, we should point out that the annual return for the SPX was 22% through 12-13-18.   You can read more in our Flash Report here.

Thank you to our wonderful analyst team members who over the years have participated in this exhaustive search and databasing effort.   We begin our thank you’s to Dr. Michelle Thompson, D.Env, now a postdoc fellow supporting the U.S. Department of Energy in the Office of Energy Policy Systems Analysis; and her colleague, Natalia Valencia, who is now Senior Research Analyst at LAVCA (Latin American Venture Capital Association).  Their early work was a foundational firming up of the years of research to follow.

Kudos to our G&A Research Team for their significant contributions to this year’s research report:  Team Leader Elizabeth Peterson; analyst-interns Amanda Hoster, Matthew Novak, Yangshengling “UB” Qui, Sara Rossner, Shraddha Sawant, Alan Stautz, Laura Malo Yague, and Qier “Cher” Zue.

We include here a hearty shout out to the outstanding analyst-interns who have made great contributions to these research efforts in each year since the start of the first project back in 2011-2012.  It’s wonderful working with all of these future leaders!

The reports from prior years are posted on the G&A Institute website: https://www.ga-institute.com/research-reports/research-reports-list.html

Check out our Honor Roll there for the full roster of all of the talented analysts who have worked on these reports and numerous other G&A Institute research that we broadly share with you when the results are in.  Their profiles (which we work with our valued colleagues to keep up to date as they move on to great success in their careers) are on the G&A website: https://www.ga-institute.com/about-the-institute/the-honor-roll.html

Footnote:  As we examine 1,500 corporate and institutional reports each year we see a variety of titles applied:  Corporate Sustainability; Corporate Social Responsibility; Corporate Responsibility; Corporate Citizenship (one of the older titles still used by GE and other firms); Corporate Stewardship; Environmental Sustainability…and more!

If you would like to have information about G&A Institute research efforts, please connect with us via our website.

Changes Ahead for Corporate Sustainability Reporting

This is a guest post by our colleague-in-sustainability, Jane DeLorenzo.  She recently completed the on-line Certificate in Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Strategies.  The platform is hosted by G&A Institute and developed in partnership with IntegTree LLC. This is a dual credentials course!  A certificate is issued by Swain Center for Executive & Professional Education at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and a separate certification is issued by G&A Institute.  This commentary is prepared as part of the completion of the coursework.  We are sharing it today to broaden understanding of the state-of-sustainability reporting – present and future.  Find out more about the dual certificate program here.

By Jane DeLorenzo  October 27, 2017

Now is the time for businesses and other organizations to take a closer look at their sustainability reporting; key considerations are what they report, why, how and which standards to use.

New standards released by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) will take effect July 1, 2018 — so the clock is ticking.

As more global companies produce sustainability reports, the process has become more complex. Competing standards and frameworks, increasing pressures from investors and other stakeholders, and the costs and resources involved to develop such reports can be challenging – and baffling to leaders.

While GRI is positioning and advocating to be the de facto global reporting standard, companies can select other frameworks, such as those of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) or the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC).

There are important factors to consider. Organizations can opt for an integrated report that includes both financial and sustainability information, or they can issue a sustainability report that is separate from the annual financial report.

Producing no sustainability report is also an option, since all three of these standards are voluntary in the United States and most other countries. Companies should be aware, though, that stakeholders may cry foul if no report is produced.

What’s a company to do?

The Continued Evolution of Reporting

Sustainability reports tell the story of an organization’s impacts on economic, environmental and social issues. Many corporations began to examine their non-financial impacts following the environmental and social movements of the 1970s in Europe and the United States.[i]

Public outcry due to rising awareness of pollution and social inequities pushed companies to try to be more transparent. Shareowners were making the case that non-financial issues can and do impact a firm’s financial performance.

In the U.S., for example, emissions data reporting was spurred by Right-to-Know legislation and rules in 1986 that required accountability from companies that were releasing toxic chemicals into the environment.[ii]

Demand for environmental and social disclosures led to the formation of GRI in 1997 by the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (now known as CERES) and the nonprofit Tellus Institute, both based in Boston. GRI later partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which had been promoting voluntary environmental reporting by companies and industry groups.

At a ceremony in 2002 announcing the move of the GRI headquarters from Boston to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, UNEP Executive Director Dr. Klaus Töpfer acknowledged GRI’s mission to develop a framework for voluntary sustainability reporting.

He commented: “An increasing number of stakeholders, including the investment community, share the goal of the GRI to raise the practice of corporate sustainability reporting to the level of rigour, credibility, comparability and verifiability of financial reporting.”[iii]

GRI launched its first sustainability reporting framework in the year 2000 and subsequently developed four versions of its guidelines (G1 through G4). Keeping current was a long-term challenge for companies reporting their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. Over time it became clear that a simplified, easier-to-update standard was needed. The new GRI Standards are meant to streamline and simplify the process.

As GRI marks its 20th year, the organization is attempting to “tackle the confusion among companies about the proliferation of different reporting frameworks,” according to GRI Chief Executive Tim Mohin.[iv]

While some media reports claim GRI and SASB are competing frameworks, a 2017 article in GreenBiz, co-authored by Mohin and SASB Founder/CEO Jean Rogers, intended to dispel this perception.[v] The article states: “Rather than being in competition, GRI and SASB are designed to fulfill different purposes for different audiences. For companies, it’s about choosing the right tool for the job.”

Best Practices

Using the right tool, or standard, is the key to companies producing a successful report for their target audience.

While GRI is the widely-accepted framework for reporting sustainability initiatives to a broad audience, SASB focuses on reporting to the investor audience. This audience is interested in the link between sustainability and financial performance. Both GRI and SASB agree on a common goal: to improve corporate performance on sustainability issues.

Other organizations with similar goals include a list of initials and acronyms:  IIRC, CDP, ISO, OEDC, SDG and more. These are:

  1. IIRC (International Integrated Reporting Council) promotes integrated reporting to provide “investors with the information they need to make more effective capital allocation decisions,” according to its website.[vi]
  2. CDP (formerly known as Carbon Disclosure Project) partners with organizations to measure their carbon footprint. Many companies use CDP alongside other reporting frameworks.
  3. ISO, the International Organization for Standardization developed ISO 26000 to help organizations improve their social responsibility efforts.
  4. OECD is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Its industrial economy member countries negotiate guidelines surrounding social responsibility.
  5. SDG stands for the United Nations “Sustainable Development Goals.” UN member states adopted the 17 SDGs with 169 targets that seek to protect the planet, end poverty, fight inequality and address other social injustices.

While CSR reporting has been widely voluntary, mandatory reporting is taking effect in some countries. In the European Union, large companies (more than 500 employees and certain assets and revenues) now face mandatory disclosure of environmental and social impacts beginning with their 2018 annual reports.[vii]

The EU published its own guidelines in 2017, but it allows companies to choose among the various standards. Laws requiring CSR reporting are also in effect in South Africa, China and Malaysia. Meanwhile, a growing number of stock exchanges around the world are issuing sustainability reporting guidance and requirements.

Companies that are just beginning the process to report on their sustainability impacts should find the new GRI Standards relatively simple to use. The Standards are free to download from the GRI website (www.globalreporting.org) by registering a company name and email address. Organizations can use all or some of the Standards, but they must notify GRI of their intended use.

The new Standards are made up of three modules (or manuals): (1) the Foundation, which describes the basic reporting principles; (2) General Disclosures, which outline required contextual information about an organization and how it operates; and (3) Management Approach, which requires organizations to state how they approach their selected sustainability topics or issues.

While the content and requirements are basically unchanged from the currently-used GRI G4, the Management Approach now takes center stage. A reporting company must provide information on how it “identifies, analyzes and responds to its actual and potential impacts.”[viii]

Once a company determines its approach to a key topic, this management approach might stay the same from year to year. Also, one management approach may apply to several key topics, which should make reporting more concise. The Standards include three additional modules that are organized according to topic categories: economic, social and environment.

Focusing on material (or key) topics, rather than a long list of topics, should also make the reporting process more concise as well as more meaningful to stakeholders. In other words, less is more. The new Standards direct companies to identify their key topics and then report on at least one of the topic-specific GRI disclosures.

For example, Company XYZ determines from stakeholder feedback that the topic of waste will be included in its sustainability report. Both the new GRI standards and G4 guidelines include five disclosures on waste. The new Standards require reporting on one disclosure so Company XYZ can report more in depth on this key topic.

Previously, some companies felt compelled to report on a greater number of topics and disclosures in order to be ranked favorably by rating agencies like Bloomberg or Thomson Reuters. These ratings not only can affect a company’s stock price, but they also can influence a company’s CSR strategy.

According to a 2016 study on rating agencies, about 33 percent of companies said inquiries from sustainability analysts shaped their overall business strategy.[ix]

Implications and Conclusion

Regardless of which sustainability reporting guidelines an organization chooses, the number of companies producing voluntary or mandatory reports is growing.

The process itself can give companies a clearer picture of their impacts and progress meeting their CSR targets. These insights help companies develop strategies to identify risks and opportunities within their realm of sustainability.

Because the GRI framework has been widely accepted globally, its new Standards will likely have a strong impact on the future of reporting. But it’s also likely that the leadership of corporations will continue to take a closer look at the link between sustainability and financial performance. Consequently, other frameworks that focus on both financial and non-financial impacts could gain acceptance.

GRI, SASB, IIRC and other frameworks are all driving improvements in sustainability reporting. As GRI’s Mohin explained: “In order to be more impactful, reporting needs to be concise, consistent, comparable and current. Brevity and consistency are key to successfully managing and understanding the insights delivered by the reported data.”[x]

Reporting must consider the financial bottom line if a company is to be both profitable and sustainable. What matters is that organizations need to be mindful of their reasons for reporting and how sustainability reporting can make an impact internally and externally. Honest, balanced and transparent reporting will ultimately benefit companies, their stakeholders and society-at-large.

Author:  Jane DeLorenzo is Principal of Sustainable Options, specializing in sustainability report writing and editing, and compliance with GRI reporting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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References:

[i] Brockett, A. and Rezaee, Z. (2015). Corporate Sustainability: Integrating Performance and Reporting. Retrieved from https://www.safaribooksonline.com/library/view/corporate-sustainability-integrating/9781118238066/chapter02.html

[ii] Environmental Protection Agency, United States. (n.d.) Timeline of Toxics Release Inventory Milestones. Retrieved from  https://www.epa.gov/toxics-release-inventory-tri-program/timeline-toxics-release-inventory-milestones

[iii] CSRwire (2002, April 22). Global Reporting Initiative Announces Move to Amsterdam. Retrieved from http://www.csrwire.com/press_releases/15359-Global-Reporting-Initiative-Announces-Move-to-Amsterdam

[iv] GRI (2017, October 4). Q&A with GRI Chief Executive Tim Mohin. Retrieved from https://www.globalreporting.org/information/news-and-press-center/Pages/QA-with-GRI-Chief-Executive-Tim-Mohin.aspx

[v] Mohin, T. and Rogers, J. (2017, March 16). How to approach corporate sustainability reporting in 2017. Retrieved from https://www.greenbiz.com/article/how-approach-corporate-sustainability-reporting-2017

[vi] International Integrated Reporting Council. (n.d.) Why? The need for change. Retrieved from https://integratedreporting.org/why-the-need-for-change/

[vii] European Commission, Belgium. (n.d.) Non-financial reporting. Retrieved from    https://ec.europa.eu/info/business-economy-euro/company-reporting-and-auditing/company-reporting/non-financial-reporting_en

[viii] GRI (n.d.) GRI 103: Management Approach. Retrieved from https://www.globalreporting.org/standards/gri-standards-download-center/gri-103-management-approach/

[ix] Sustainable Insight Capital Management (2016 February) Who are the ESG rating agencies? Retrieved from https://www.sicm.com/docs/who-rates.pdf

[x] GRI (2017, October 4). Q&A with GRI Chief Executive Tim Mohin. Retrieved from https://www.globalreporting.org/information/news-and-press-center/Pages/QA-with-GRI-Chief-Executive-Tim-Mohin.aspx