By Nancy Mancilla & Cristina Garza
The tension between the array of voluntary standards, protocols and frameworks for sustainability, along with uneasiness stemming from unknown changes of the GRI G4 Framework, makes us question whether GRI will still have the same muscle it has had in recent years.
Within the context of the VerdeExchange conference held this week in Los Angeles, it was interesting to take a look at the role that public agencies have been taking regarding sustainability reporting as opposed to the corporate perspective we are more accustomed to.
Despite the numerous reporting frameworks across the world, preference still seems to incline towards the GRI framework given its integrative reporting qualities and the transparency capacity that it provides.
Sustainability includes an immensely wide range of sectors and areas of analysis. When talking about sustainability in this country, many people focus on energy or greenhouse gas tracking and reduction. New areas of focus are coming into play, such as investing and shared value, but there is a lot more to sustainability.
As mentioned by GRI's Mike Wallace, sustainability is about a triple bottom line: it is about people, planet and profit. “This framework didn’t just appear overnight - it is something that has been developed by multi-stakeholder groups the world over - it has been tested and proven to be a great guide for better communicating sustainability performance across sectors.”
At the end of the day, there is a consensus that there is need for both common denominators and consistent disclosure. In this regard, GRI has definitely been taking the leading role in providing standardized guidelines across multiple sectors. Stakeholders such as government agencies, investors, corporations and academic institutions continue to test its application. It has no means reached perfect measure, but it continues to evolve, just as the practice of sustainability reporting does.
This need is perfectly outlined by federal agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service which has been addressing aspects such as environmental, labor and human hues in their public reports and performance statements prior to 2007, a year when they became aware of the necessity to disclose their sustainability efforts in a systematic and transparent way. It was GRI that gave the agency a baseline to report by using accurate data in a standardized way. Although facing certain resistance, as reporting does not imply any sort of mandate, they were able to push voluntary compliance as is, in their own words, “the right thing to do.”
Moreover, public entities such as the State of Washington have gone further, as GRI has allowed them to demonstrate their sustainability efforts in a clear and open fashion: everything from allocation of resources and budgeting (a critical aspect of their general performance) to all of their environmental efforts and programs could be reported using a single framework. Even agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are considering methods for streamlining communication related to their water footprint, best practices for federal funded projects, and green technology. It is interesting to note that the EPA, like other public agencies, such as the General Service Administration (GSA), along with major corporations such as Microsoft and Intel, are now instilling reporting beyond their own boundaries into their supply chains, comparable to the way ISO 9000 rolled in into countless key suppliers.
Even though GRI created guidelines 15 years ago, it has not only updated them continuously (with a current G3.1 version and a May rollout of the G4), but it has demonstrated its capacity to adapt to and standardize specific industries through the creation of Sector Supplements for industries that range from Mining & Metals, Oil & Gas, to Events. The San Diego Regional Airport Authority has actually pioneered reporting based on Sector Supplement. In Jan 2009 they, along with 10 international airports and around 10 stakeholders, developed consensus-based industry indicators under the GRI umbrella. Initially they were having a hard time in agreeing on the metrics, such as those related to wildlife and human trafficking. Still, no easy way to compare data in the sector for all the various players existed until the Sector Supplement provided them with the level of measurability and comparability needed.
Likewise, in the academic world there are several sustainability frameworks referred to by universities to better track and report their own footprint. UMass Dartmouth has now produced two GRI-based reports that have caused “student specialists” to bring expertise to the cities of Fall River and Dartmouth, so that they may too be held accountable for their various impacts. Fall River has already started to influence others municipalities as the first city in the USA to report based on GRI guidelines, and the first one in the world to provide over 62 metrics of social, environmental and economic impact, thus setting the model that can be replicated across the country.
GRI’s framework definitely continues to be the world’s top baseline to generate sustainability reporting in a systematic, transparent and consistent way, given its capacity to not only engulf the many social, environmental and governance aspects that it implies into a single framework, but because of its capacity to adapt to industries across all sectors and sizes. From public conversations, it doesn’t seem as if groups are discouraged by the G4, but even more encouraged to overcome the hurdles of supply chain dependency. Now that front runners have taken the lead in developing GRI-based reports, it’s only a matter of time before a greater ripple effect brings an even greater number of organizations of all sizes into the fold.