5 Reasons Why GRI is the New LEED

Ed Note:The following is a re-post of one of our most popular GRI articles from last year to spread the word about our GRI-certified courses in sustainability reporting.

Pick a framework, any framework. While LEED is the name of the game in green building standards, a clear winner in the sustainability reporting framework race has yet to emerge. You’ll hear many pundits say that the landscape for sustainability reporting is too confusing for your average company to grasp – a problem which leads to disengagement. In the US alone, there’s the the Carbon Disclosure Project, the Climate Registry and EPA Leaders. Those are just for carbon accounting. On top of these, there is Cradle to Cradle, Walmart’s checklist,  and a whole host of others. Even 3p friend Greener World Media has jumped into the fray, announcing recently that they plan to develop a new framework in partnership with Underwriters Laboratories. They want to develop “the first global standard on sustainability that is comprehensive in scope, global in application, and verifiable by trained, accredited third parties.”

Triple Pundit thinks the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) fits that bill pretty well. Here are 5 reasons why we believe GRI will become the standard in sustainability reporting, just as LEED is the standard for green buildings:

1. Already in use by lots of companies

The key to figuring out the standard is to see what everyone else is doing- and hundreds of the biggest national and international companies are already using GRI. The first 50 GRI reports were released in 2000 and in the ten years since, interest has grown rapidly. 1400 reports were registered in 2009– overall this is an average annual increase of 156% a year.

Companies of all shapes and sizes use GRI for their sustainability reporting. They span the gamut on the sustainability scale from deep green Herman Miller to not-so-sustainable Halliburton, and they include mineral, energy, banking consumer products companies.

In May, GRI was announced as the official reporting standard of the UN Global Compact, and the framework will be recommended for the more than 5800 companies associated with the compact.

2. Longstanding, stringent, and iterative guidelines

GRI was conceived in 1997, and its framework uses a rigorous stakeholder approach to standard development with participants drawn globally from business, civil society, labor, and professional institutions.

G3, the latest version of the guidelines, references dozens of protocols that have come before, including the IPCC Working group 1, Kyoto Protocol, Montreal Protocol, International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) Energy efficiency standards and testing procedures and World Resources Institute/World Business Council on Sustainable Development
Greenhouse Gas Protocol (WRI/WBCSD GHG Protocol) (2004 edition), among hundreds of others.

3. GRI funding is separate from certification process, increasing objectivity

A common issue in the world of certification is who pays the bills. In many cases, the company that seeks certification pays a fee for the privilege of being certified. Since these fees make up the operating budget of the certifier, standards can be weakened in order to secure next year’s sale. This is a concern in sustainability circles (Cradle to Cradle, Transfair), but also in other arenas as well. Conflict of interest was deemed to be one of the issues with the 2008 housing crisis when it came to light that rating agency Moody’s was being a little bit too generous with its AAA ratings. While any organization, non-profit or not can fall victim to losing its objectivity, GRI’s funding source, and the transparency of its protocol development process, decrease the likelihood that standards will be weakened in the name of increased usage.

4. GRI fosters transparency and reports are totally transparent

As we mentioned in #1, all different kinds of companies complete sustainability reports using the GRI methodology. Just because a company has one does not make it sustainable. But it does show that the company is concerned with its impact. Plus, its report is available for any and all to see, along with the letter grade it earned. These are all available on GRI’s website, and anyone can easily download a spreadsheet with links to every report since 1999. As Peter Drucker first said what gets measured gets managed. If a company doesn’t understand its environmental and social impact, it cannot do very much to improve it.

GRI’s reporting methodology is free and available for anyone to view, as are the reports companies publish using the framework. All of this data is the pinnacle of transparency, and transparency is the first step to sustainability.

GRI allows companies to get a toe wet, while easily seeing the benefits of transparency and reporting. This methodology allows companies and the public to compare companies both to their own past performance and other competitors in their sectors.

5. Universal application

One of the challenges of sustainability reporting is comparing one company against another. Should companies be measured against their own past performance or against other companies in the same sector? What about comparing between sectors or between countries? How can you compare the performance of an oil company against one whose carbon footprint is based largely on manufacturing? GRI strikes the balance with historical records, guidelines translated into many languages, and sector and nation-specific guidance, so there’s something for everyone.

Bonus reason: triple bottom line approach to sustainability

As if that weren’t enough, GRI has one additional reason it’s set apart from the crowd – one that’s particularly important to Triple Pundit readers. Many reporting guidelines focus primarily on environmental issues because energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are easier to measure than social issues. Further, most of the economic and political risk that companies face from bad behavior falls on the environmental side in the form of fines and environmental clean-up. However, social issues are extremely important to a company’s overall sustainability record, and any reporting protocol worth its salt needs to have a means for considering them. GRI has this in spades with its most recent set of priorities including: human rights, community impacts, and gender in addition to all of those issues most specific to environmental sustainability.

Want to learn more? 3p is partnering with ISOS consulting to conduct  2-day certifications in GRI sustainability reporting .  Click here for more information.

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

14 responses

  1. The only point I think you missed is that the GRI also has an XBRL taxonomy which will help to standardize the digital transmission and web services consumption of GRI indicator data and make the the whole area of sustainability much more transparent.

  2. It would be interesting if the activities within a building, perhaps as measured by GRI, were part of what made the building itself sustainable. But the headline that GRI is the new LEED is disingenuous since they deal with completely different things.

  3. I wonder if there is a large gap in the profit margin for smaller companies that submit to the GRI as compared to larger companies that can afford to be more flexible financially. I also think we need to be careful when comparing companies, even if in the same sector. The geographic region and economic factors in the area they are based could play a role in how sustainable they operate. Even having a difference of several hundred or even 100 employees could change they way the operate. Here’s another article on GRI and how being aware of it can increase your career opportunities: http://www.everblue.edu/blog/corporate-sustainability-global-reporting-initiative

  4. Congratulations!

    It is a very good initiative!  Step by step, gradually but firmly, the it will be assimilated in the corporation’s coultures and will be implanted all around the world!

    Barbato Aurélio

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