ESG Reporting Frameworks & Standards – Continue to Multiply

Original:  October 14 2021

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

The number of ESG disclosure and reporting guidelines, frameworks and standards continues to expand – here comes the GRI Universal Standards, the SASB XRBL Taxonomy, and much more.

The range of available transparency tools is making it more challenging for corporate management and investors to navigate.

The ESG / Sustainability / Sustainable Investing lexicon for both publicly-traded companies and their providers of capital is today chock-a-block with acronyms and initials. GRI, SASB, TCFD, OECD, IIRC, SDG, PRI, UNGC, GRESB, WEF, IFRS, EFRAG, EC’s NFRD – you get the picture!

And there are a host of industry-focused standards (such as RBA, once known as EICC), IEPC, LEED).

The venerable player is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a comprehensive, ever-expanding, stakeholder-focused reporting framework created by global stakeholders over two decades ago with roots in Boston, in the Ceres Pledge of the early-1990s.

That pledge was created by SRI investors after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster in Alaska and was intended to invite corporate managements to promise to do better in what is now ESG performance.

The first two signatories of significant size were General Motors and Sun Oil. G&A team members were involved in encouraging firms to sign on to the pledge in those early years.

By 1999-2000 the first corporate environmental, responsibility, et al reports were being published in the United States and Europe (a few dozen appeared in the first round with the first generation of the GRI framework, G1).

Over the ensuing years the GRI framework evolved and matured on through G3, G4 and finally in recent years to a more formal standards-based approach. And those modular standards for ESG reporting are continuing to evolve as GRI enters its third decade.

The news today about GRI is focused on the launch of what are called “Universal Standards”, which in modular form will be in place for corporate and institutional reports to use if they are going to report in accordance with the GRI Standards.

The now-familiar Core and Comprehensive will go away; it will still be OK to use “GRI-Referenced” (a less strict version which references parts of the GRI reporting standard) in reporting following the Universal Standards, which will go into effect in January 2023.

The new GRI Universal Standards align with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Human Rights, the OECD Governance Standards, and the International Corporate Governance Network (ICGN).

The elements of the Universal Standards to keep in mind are these: what is the impact of the corporation on society, and society on the corporation; materiality of disclosures; due diligence on the part of reporters.

Keep in mind the standards are broad and focused on stakeholder disclosure, of course including providers of capital as stakeholders. All companies can use the Universal Standards to communicate the firm’s impact on the broader society. (Think: how does your firm connect with people?)

Supply chain operations are an important part of GRI reporting going forward. Consider, as one expert recently explained, that of the large, multi-national enterprises of the developed world, more than 90 percent of production is beyond the company’s walls, out there in the world of non-company producers (many in less-developed nations as well as in China).

The European Union is considering adopting corporate sustainability reporting that would use the GRI Universal Standards for mandated disclosure by all companies operating in the 27 EU states (with certain qualifications as to size and other considerations).

GRI standards-focused disclosure is expected to include story-telling and metrics about corporate sustainability actions and activities, governance, strategies, planning, practices, engagements, and more. Materiality assessment activities are critical elements of GRI standards reporting, notes the GRI team.

In addition, GRI is launching a series of Sector Specific guidance, beginning with the new “Sector Standard for Oil and Gas.”

The sector standards will address “how decision and actions of companies address widespread stakeholder concerns about their climate change-related impacts, while ensuring a just transition for workers, communities and the environment”.

We are sharing details of the above developments at GRI with you in the Top Stories this issue.

The G&A Institute team has been focused intently on GRI reporting since 2000 and was designated as the GRI Data Partner for the U.S., and then the U.K. and Republic of Ireland more than a decade ago.

Over this decade, we’ve gathered and analyzed in depth thousands of GRI reports since then. G&A Institute is a Community Member of GRI, and we of course watch the work of GRI very closely.

Whether you are a corporate manager, executive or board member, or provider of capital to the corporate sector, you should also keep a close watch on GRI.  And, the G&A team is available to help answer any questions you have.

TOP STORIES

Lively Discussions: The Move Toward Harmonized Corporate ESG / Sustainability Reporting

September 22 2020

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

There are lively discussions going on, centered on improving publicly-traded company disclosure and reporting – and especially ESG reporting…that is, storytelling about the company’s “non-financials” (in accounting-speak).  And the story of the corporate sustainability story for those-in-the-know!

The proliferation of ESG / sustainability reporting frameworks, standards, information platforms, industry guidance, stock exchange guidance and much more has been astounding in recent years.

We think of all this as about the organizing of the storytelling about a company’s sustainability journey and what the enterprise has accomplished. 

And why the story matters to society…to investors, employees, customers, suppliers, communities…and other stakeholders.

And it has a been a long journey to the state of today’s expanding corporate ESG disclosure.

The start of mandating of periodic financial and business mandated disclosure goes back to the 1930s with passage of landmark federal legislation & adopted implementation (compliance) rules for publicly-traded companies in the United States.

Corporate financial disclosure in concept is all about providing shareholders (and potential investors) with the information they need to make buy-sell-hold decisions.

The sturdy foundations of mandated corporate disclosure in the U.S. are the laws passed after the 1929 stock market crash – the 1933 Securities Act and 1934 Exchange Act.  These laws and the bodies of rules deriving from them have been constantly updated over the years, including with Sarbanes Oxley legislation in 2002 and Dodd Frank in 2010. These mandate or guide and otherwise provide the rules-of-the-road for financial disclosure for company managements.

Disclosure has steadily moved well beyond the numbers – Sarbanes-Oxley updated the 1930’s laws and addressed many aspects of corporate governance, for example.

Voluntary Disclosure & Reporting – ESG Issues & Topics
Over the past 40 years, beyond the financials, corporate voluntary non-financial disclosure has been steadily increasing, as investors first embraced “socially responsible investing” and moved on to sustainable & responsible & impact investing in the 21st Century.

Asset owner and asset manager (internal and external) requests for ESG information from publicly-traded companies in portfolio has steadily expanded in the depth and breadth of topic and issue areas that institutional investors are focused on – and that companies now address in significantly-expanded ESG disclosures.

Today, investor interest in ESG / sustainability and related topics areas is widespread throughout asset classes – for equities, equity-focused products such as imutual funds and ETFs, fixed-income instruments, and now credit risk, options and futures, fixed assets (such as real estate), and more.

With today’s dramatic increase in corporate sustainability & ESG reporting, the maturation of reporting frameworks and standards to help address the internal need for better organizing non-financial data and information and accompanying ESG financial disclosure.

And all of this in the context of trying to meet investor demands.  Today with expanded ESG disclosure, corporate executives find that while there are more resources available to the company, there is also more confusion in the disclosure process.   Investors agree.

Common Complaints:  Lack of Comparability, Confusion, Demand for Change
The result of increasing demand by a widening range of investors for accurate, detailed corporate ESG information and the related proliferation of reporting frameworks and standards can and has resulted in confusion among investors, stakeholders and companies as to what is important and material and what is frill.

This especially as corporate managements embrace various elements of the available frameworks and standards and industry guidance and ESG ratings for their still-voluntary ESG reporting.

So where do we go from here?  In our selection of Top Stories for you, we bring you news from important players in the ESG reporting process as they attempt to move in the direction of more uniform, comprehensive, meaningful and decision-ready corporate ESG reporting. That investors can rely on.

The news for you is coming from GRI, SASB, GSSB, IIRC, CDSB, and CDP (among others) – all working to get on the same page.

The aim: to benefit corporate reporters – and the users of the reports, especially capital market players.

Because in the end, ESG excellence is all about winning in the competition for access to capital. Accurate, timely, comprehensive comparable ESG information is key!

Top Stories