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GRI Reporting in Public Agencies


By Nancy Mancilla

While conducting the GRI Certified Sustainability Reporting trainings, ISOS Group has had the great fortune of meeting sustainability champions all across the U.S. When we first started down this path four years ago, we found that the GRI Framework was largely embraced by multinational corporations headquartered on American soil. Though that is no longer the case, we continue to receive questions about the breadth of application.

In addition to a wide array of corporations, we have started to see an uptick in solely domestic enterprises, including small- to medium-sized businesses, academic institutions, public agencies within the federal sphere, state agencies and, more recently, even municipalities. Therefore, our answer is always, “Yes, GRI is applicable to organizations of all sizes and the flexibility of the framework allows organizations to tell their story and describe what exactly sustainability means for them.”

In thinking about the stories shared during our courses in 2012, one thing seems clear - we are witnessing a paradigm shift before our very eyes and it’s our belief that the story of the public agency that could, will surface much more readily over the coming year.

One of our recent speakers, Linda Glasier from the Washington Department of Ecology, put it best when describing initial hurdles her agency had to overcome in producing their first GRI report. “Public agencies factor in both commitment to mission and caution in breaking new ground when we start to discuss transparency and sustainability.”

Why is that? Our public agencies owe the populous solutions to our societal ills. The citizenry wants and needs to be part of the solution. We all want to make our states and our nation greater right? Answers to these questions lay at the very heart of sustainability principles, regardless of the framework used.  Initial steps require a sometimes new and self exploratory process to determine relevant impacts that can be addressed. Engagement is essential whether it is internal or external. Ultimately, people want to feel like their voices count.

During the same panel discussion held during our recent training just outside Portland, Cindy Dolezel, Beaverton, Oregon’s Sustainability Manager, added:

“A community is empowered when they see that the City is listening to their voices and completing actions they have requested. The City of Beaverton strives to engage with the community around sustainability issues and to emphasize the need for a holistic approach that considers the community, environment, and the economy. Through these efforts, we have gained trust from the community about the City’s approach to sustainability.”

That speaks volumes for public agencies, particularly during a time when the health of our economy and political system is not what we would like it to be.

Now, although the city of Beaverton is not currently producing a GRI-based sustainability report, they have joined the likes of other cities across the country, such as Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Atlanta that instituted a sustainability framework. Beaverton has a clear understanding that collaboration and working across disciplines is essential in their efforts to move forward. Through internal collaboration, the City has managed to leverage several grants to aid in sustainability initiatives.

“Once the City had a few big wins under its belt, Beaverton started to clearly see what could be done and what was still needed. We quickly realized the need for a cohesive strategy to move toward targeted goals. To do this, we created an internal plan to integrate sustainability into City operations and day-to-day activities.”- Cindy Dolezel

The tempo at which organizations plunge into the world of sustainability, is different for each one. For Linda Glasier, she came into a project that had already been initiated. However, it was stalled. She had to quickly assume the role of mediator to help translate methodic principles between different personalities, and agencies, while uncovering the fire that would lead the agency to their goal of releasing the first ever state environmental public agency GRI report. Besides the need to meet EPA grant requirements, the agency was driven to build greater relationships with the business community that they regulate - many of which are producing GRI reports. Glasier argued, “We need to speak the same language, so that we can work together to build a better state.”

Though these reports are just as different as you and me, there are a few commonalities not only within public agencies, but across all sectors of the economy. Issues related to environmental management of energy, waste and water, labor or “ethics,” and financial health tend to be common points for public agencies. Green procurement, however, is not only the most common, it is the most influential and most widely used to manage any intuitions footprint. Like the saying, you are what you eat, in sustainability, your footprint is what you buy. How might all this sustainability activity influence the suppliers to these sorts of entities?

When looking through the crystal ball for 2013, possibilities for growth sustainability reporting from public agency action seem endless, not only among public agencies, but throughout their supply chains. Others have already pioneered this space and we can all learn from their experiences and leadership examples. Fall River, Massachusetts has just published the very first A level GRI report for a U.S. City. Linda Glasier helped spearhead the publication of the Washington State Department of Ecology’s first GRI report. The San Diego Regional Airport Authority and the Port of Los Angeles have released ground-breaking GRI reports within their sector. The U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Army, NREL and PNNL have also been instrumental in influencing others within their value chain that have even appeared at our courses.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with a few words of advice from our recent Vancouver, Washington guest presenters.

- “This type of transformative change takes time. Use techniques like the Natural Step to determine your vision for what you want to achieve. Backcasting will help envision the steps needed to get there.” Brightworks CEO, Scott Lewis

-  “Share your successes, struggles, and future goals with the stakeholders. As you engage with people, find ways to give them ownership and listen to their voices. Every organization is different, but I encourage everyone to start big – focus internally and on engaging the community at the same time – remember your goal and understand that the process will unfold to get you there.” City of Beaverton Sustainability Manager, Cindy Dolezel

-  “Be prepared to receive mixed feedback. Acknowledge that there are lessons in all feedback.”  WA State Department of Ecology Environmental Specialist, Linda Glasier

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