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Universities Embrace GRI Sustainability Reporting

By Cindy Mehallow

Sustainability reporting has become de rigeur among thousands of companies as well as a majority of the Global Fortune 250, but now even academic institutions are beginning to follow suit and issue their own non-financial reports. Earlier this week, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth announced the release of its third University Sustainability Report  prepared in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G3 framework.

That puts the school in elite company, as one of just five universities with a report listed on the GRI website.  UMass Dartmouth broke new ground last year when it became the first university in the world and the United States to release a self-declared A-level sustainability report according to the GRI's G3 guidelines.

The GRI framework is the most widely used methodology for reporting an organization’s environmental, societal, and economic impacts.  This type of reporting is known by several names: sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR), triple bottom line (TBL), or environmental, societal, and governance (ESG) reporting.  It provides the consistency that shareholders, potential investors, analysts and other stakeholders seek when evaluating and comparing an organization’s ESG performance.

What intrigued me is that the report was produced largely by MBA students in the Charlton College of Business   at the university.  Students complete the report as an experiential learning assignment in Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Law, a core class of the MBA curriculum.

The idea of having students prepare a report is the brainchild of Assistant Professor of Business Law Adam Sulkowski, who spoke with me in a phone interview. As one of the first assignments in the course, Sulkowski’s students all evaluate a CSR report from a corporation such as GE  and previously also "graded" a second CSR report by a company of their choice.  Then it occurred to Sulkowski, “Why not have students prepare their own report?” 

Like any good reporter, Sulkowski pulled together a strong reporting team.  He recruited the NetImpact UMass Dartmouth Chapter which he advises.  This was a natural fit since NetImpact is an international network of students and professionals dedicated to using business for a positive economic, environmental and social impact. As a member of the NetImpact New Jersey Professional Chapter and participant in NetImpact’s outstanding annual conference, I know the passion and professionalism of this group.

The UMass Dartmouth Office for Campus and Community Sustainability, home to the Sustainability Initiative and headed by Director Susan Jennings, also collaborated on the report and contributed greatly. Kaisa Holloway Cripps, an analyst in the sustainability office, a leader of the Net Impact chapter, and a lecturer in the Charlton College of Business, played a key role in assisting the MBA students with compiling and formatting the report.

Lessons Learned

The result was a tremendous learning experience for all involved -- Sulkowski, his students and the university community.  In my work preparing sustainability reports for clients, I’ve witnessed firsthand the heightened awareness and understanding of sustainability issues and employee engagement that results from the process of preparing a report.  In the context of an MBA program foundational course, this orients students to the great sweep of research, education, and business incubation activities of UMass Dartmouth.  In addition, it builds some sense of belonging and loyalty to the institution and a sense of cohort cohesion.

Assessing the university’s supply chains and functions and impacts sometimes led to changes of awareness that are not uncommon in the corporate setting or any other institutions.

“Some people don’t realize all the core functions of their organization until they look at what comprises the vast majority of the institution's environmental, societal, and economic footprint,” explained Sulkowski. “Obviously education and research come to mind as primary functions.  However -- and this terminology is not meant to belittle all universities' tremendous efforts to provide students education and support and valuable formative experiences, nor research, scholarship or efforts to incubate businesses -- a conventional university also warehouses people: we house and feed people and provide a residential experience. The residential function of universities is not the first thing most students think of when they consider a core function of the university, but it accounts for the lion's share of our environmental impacts and resource usage, as well as a lot of societal and economic impacts.”

That realization helped the UMass Dartmouth team apply the GRI framework and indicators, which were created with business organizations in mind, to an academic institution. Sulkowski says that his MBA students found the GRI framework “readily adaptable,” which surprised me a bit.  But after reading through the new UMass Dartmouth report, I was impressed by the team’s ability to apply the framework to their institution's functions and impacts.  

Like any good corporate social responsibility report, the University Sustainability Report provides readers with a better understanding of the whole footprint of the campus and the environmental, societal, and economic impacts of all five locations of UMass Dartmouth.

Gaining Marketable Skills

Besides gaining a marketable experience in sustainability reporting (and a highly visible, "real world" artifact of their experiential learning), students learned a lot about organizational behavior (e.g., best practices for obtaining information from gatekeepers, reconciling discrepancies in data from various sources, and eliciting cooperation from departments).  Students also used critical thinking skills as they applied a set of abstract rules to organize a large set of data and assembled it into a coherent, credible document.

Several students are already realizing payoffs from their sustainable business education. 

  • One MBA student is in advanced stages of job interviews for a position in which she would be accountable for a major corporation's production of a sustainability report that is GRI-compliant. 

  • An honors research project on sustainability reporting resulted in a published article on the impact of such reporting on employee happiness as compared with the impact of financial performance.

  • Three students have secured positions in jobs related to sustainability, with one launching an alternative energy business. 

  • The national NetImpact organization cited the sustainability report as a best practice and awarded the NetImpact UMass Dartmouth Chapter Silver Status for 2010, due in part to this endeavor.

Beginning the Journey


While he is pleased with all the positive outcomes, Sulkowski believes that “we are definitely at the beginning of a long journey.  Momentum is just beginning to build on our campus and hopefully on other campuses.”

The first year, Sulkowski gathered information and produced a draft just to show that it could be done.  Last year, the MBA students assembled a much nicer report that covered 63 metrics, a key benchmark.  This year’s report features a stronger stakeholder engagement section than the first report, covers 72 metrics, and achieves all the benchmarks required to self-declare an A level of compliance with the GRI G3 guidelines.

What’s next for the team?  "The future of sustainability reporting is creating integrated reports - that is, reports that combine financial performance with ESG performance measures,” observes Sulkowski, who noted other ways that the reporting process could spur improvement throughout the organization. 

As I observed in one of my earlier posts   for TriplePundit, producing a CSR report can result in far more than a static document.  Rather, the process can serve as a “wellspring of opportunity” for an organization that views it as part of an ongoing cycle of listening to stakeholders, goal setting, implementation, measurement, and reporting back to stakeholders. Judging from the ideas Sulkowski shared with me, it seems that he has made that discovery.

“It would be great to progressively integrate ESG reporting with various operations, such as facilities management and human resources,” suggests Sulkowski.  “It could help us set goals and measure progress in improving our institutions.” 

“It could play a role in the admissions process, since we know that prospective students are interested in the sustainability practices at universities,” Sulkowski continued, noting that sustainability reporting helps in recruiting, retaining, and motivating the best talent. “It would be a natural next step to experiment with integrating sustainability reporting, possibly in conjunction with social media, into our outreach to any people that we want to attract to our community.  It may help in our communication with other stakeholders, such as current students, alumni, potential donors, university system managers, government officials, taxpayers, institutions that potentially want to collaborate, suppliers, local businesses, and other neighbors."

And that is indeed the next step in effective CSR reporting – building one’s brand by sharing the results with stakeholders.

For more information on the report, contact NetImpactUMD@gmail.com.

Cindy Mehallow is principal of CRM Communications, a woman-owned sustainability communications consulting practice specializing in corporate social responsibility reporting and stakeholder communications. GRI-Certified in sustainability reporting, Cindy has produced award-winning sustainability reports for Fortune 500 clients in a variety of industries.

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