If integrated reporting of financial and sustainability data becomes mainstream over the next decade, we may look back to the Global Reporting Initiative’s Amsterdam conference in late May as a turning point. The gathering, at which 1200 professionals from 77 countries assembled, focused on the GRI’s advocacy of increased sustainability reporting by the world’s 80,000 largest firms by 2015.
Assuming more companies and their suppliers provide environmental, social, and governance (ESG, the GRI’s preferred term) disclosure, full integration of ESG and financial metrics would lead to “one report,” allowing stakeholders and analysts a more seamless path towards evaluating companies’ performance at all levels. The GRI wants integration to become the norm by 2020. Naturally, questions fester: why now, and how can GRI get there?
Several speakers made the compelling case that the earth’s ecosystem is in crisis. Few reading this article would dispute that idea. But human and climate crises do not lend themselves to easy quantification, and in the world of business and finance, numbers rule. The riddle for GRI and its advocates must solve is how to work with companies and change the current definitions of what “economic growth” and “financial reporting” mean. It is true that the globe’s pace of consumption at all levels is unsustainable in the long run; gaining buy-in from the world’s business community will be the key. If our society can move beyond traditional metrics such as GDP and GNP and towards a “triple top line,” we’ll all make a huge step forward.
So what are some of the challenges?
Going beyond multinationals. Corporate social responsibility and ESG has focused on the world’s largest companies. But with the growing need for accountability throughout a company’s entire supply chain, small- and medium-sized companies (SMEs) have to participate in the process as well. Companies in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) also have to report. While Brazil has shown that they are a leader in ESG disclosure, other countries’ firms have just started the process. An issue that must be addressed, however, is cost: meeting disclosure regulations is costly for companies—how can a small manufacturer employing 100 people issue an ESG report without incurring onerous expenses?
Government can lead, but should also be a partner. The era of bailouts has led to an outcry against “big government,” and not just in the United States. Businesses would do themselves a favor to be proactive on the ESG front, staying not only a step ahead of regulators, but to spark their competitors into action as well. Government and business have got to build trust, not confrontation.
Improving data quality, accessibility, and incentives. Gauging what is material, accurate, consistent, and comparable is crucial as ESG standards evolve. Next, while social media has had a growing influence in the ESG world, not all stakeholders use social networks, or even the Internet. Finally, showing that ESG disclosure is not punitive, but promising, is needed to inspire more businesses to measure their performance beyond balance sheets and cash flow statements.
An executive summary is available for review.
Editor’s Note: Be sure to have a look at our upcoming GRI Certification course to be held this July in Berkeley. For information about the course, please click here. Feel free to pass it on to people you think may be interested!