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Tom Schueneman headshot

GRI and the SDG Compass: Moving Beyond the Report


If you're a CEO and want to report on your triple bottom line, where are you gonna go? GRI.

Sustainability reporting is nothing new for readers of TriplePundit.

Since the late 1990s, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) has been the standard-bearer for corporate sustainability, literally creating the global standard for integrating non-financial metrics into business reporting. GRI allows businesses, governments and organizations to recognize and disclose their social and environmental impact, be it climate change, corruption, human rights, equality or the many other important elements of sustainability now encompassed in the G4 Standard.

That said, producing a corporate sustainability report likely doesn’t evoke a sense of excitement. It sounds complicated, cumbersome and a little obscure. Another stuffy report gathering dust on the shelf. What’s the point?

That's a good question, one that needs answering if you're serious about sustainability. A report is so stuffy, so static.

Reporting is something else entirely. Reporting frees the data tucked inside the report and brings it into the light of day. It's this "liberation" of the data that gets GRI CEO Michael Meehan really excited.

“I’m much less concerned about that big, thick paper report with all that information locked up in it,” Meehan said in an interview at the COP21 climate talks in Paris. “I want to liberate that … put that information directly into financial and business decisions.”

Beyond the report: Sustainability reporting comes of age

The historic climate agreement signed in Paris, combined with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in September, made 2015 a pivotal year for transformation. Laid out in these two documents is a roadmap for, as economist Jeffery Sachs put it, “the age of sustainable development.” Throughout the two weeks of COP21 there was a distinct sense of guarded yet persistent optimism that something new was afoot. COP21 was, arguably, the signal we've all been waiting for.

The Paris Agreement and SDGs integrate the highest aspirations of the world community, defining the path for a world in transformation. Seeking to make a better world is not new, but, unlike the Millennium Development goals or the Kyoto Protocol, we can now fully recognize the stake we all have in the effort. Every sector of global society is called upon to be part of the process.

For Meehan, engaging this multi-stakeholder approach is the foundation for the future of GRI and sustainability reporting in the context of our transformative economy. Embracing this "new era" of integrating sustainability into an organization's decision-making process -- liberating the data from the report -- is the theme for GRI's 5th Global Conference in Amsterdam this May.

Transparency and trust: Managing the flow of capital

Economies are built on transparency and trust. To the extent that either is lacking, any economy fails to operate efficiently and equitably. Sustainable global development will not happen without transparency and trust. The Paris Agreement and SDGs clarify this common connection between economic and sustainable development. One does not happen without the other.

As many developing markets emerge onto the world stage, insuring these markets evolve on a foundation of trust and transparency is essential for creating credible and sustainable investment opportunities as trillions of dollars move into these new emerging markets. Managing this economic transition requires what Meehan called a "filter" between these vast flows of money shifting into new markets.

"GRI needs to insure that as this huge shift takes place -- it’s the biggest one in maybe 10 years. We need to make sure this filter is right there," Meehan said. "Otherwise this money is going to be going toward things that promote corruption."

"All these long-term investments go into an emerging economy and put GRI as a filter between the money and the recipients of that money to insure that things like human rights and corruption are taken into account. Because you can’t invest in these economies if they’re not credible, so you have to build them up. And that’s what sustainable development funding is all about."

There are real risks; these are all the things that you need to worry about. It’s not just carbon and energy, it’s all this other stuff, and there’s these huge financial vehicles around the world that already use GRI as this filter, and we’ve got to make sure that it stays in place as trillions of dollars in investment change focus."

It is this filter, Meehan explained, that will catalyze real change as defined by the SDGs.

The SDG compass

Developed with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the U.N. Global Compact and GRI, the SDG Compass helps companies understand the business case for taking credible and transparent action on these goals.

The strength of the SDGs is how they define global risks for future development and identify opportunities to meet those challenges. The SDGs explicitly integrate a broad coalition of civil society, government and business to understand the common issues at hand and how they will be successfully met through mutual effort and trust.

“The reason I like the SDGs is it gives people a reason to care about sustainability," Meehan told 3p.

It's one thing to claim you care about human rights, poverty or climate change; it's another to measure progress against common goals. “Unless you have some way of actually collecting that information and showing your progress toward those goals, it’s just a pledge," Meehan said. The SDG Compass guides business leaders on how they can align their strategies with specific SDG goals, measure and communicate their progress against those goals, and incorporate feedback from the global community for further innovation and action.

SDG target 12.6 explicitly acknowledges the critical role corporate reporting must play in the achievement of the goals," Meehan said at the launch of the SDG Compass in September. "Our ambition is that by using the SDG Compass to measure and manage their contributions, businesses will generate high-quality data to inform better decision making and improve the lives of millions of people across our planet."

GRI's U.N. Target 12.6 Live Tracker Sustainability Disclosure Database gives realtime updates on the global progress of sustainability reporting within the context of the SDGs.

"GRI's role is only as a data engine," Meehan explained. "We just want to push out as much of the data as we can and incorporate it in as many things as we can. And SDGs is a really, really great way to do that”

While chatting with Meehan at COP21, I suggested this approach was a key element to a viable and sustainable economic revolution, to actually seeing the SDGs succeed.

“I totally think so," Meehan replied. "That’s what sustainability information is all about: build more credible and sustainable markets. Every business decision or policy decision has sustainability baked into it."

"The SDGs for me are real important ... The reason we care is because it gives companies a reason to care about this. It makes the value of reporting and these standards so much more."

Meehan is truly a passionate ambassador for the SDGs and the role GRI and the SDG Compass will play in their success.

The stars align

 History progresses in fits and starts, especially from the perspective of those living in it. Change is ongoing and relentless, but it sneaks up on us, playing out in unexpected and sudden ways. The vestiges of how we imbue certain human events with an almost mystical enthusiasm is evident when we comment how "the stars are aligned" to signal a sudden shift in fortune or joining of forces pointing "fate" in a new direction.

By token of how often the phrase was used during the COP21 climate talks, it seems that the stars aligned over the December skies of Paris. COP21 was the capstone to a year of new possibilities.

If there is a "mystical" element in the transformation for which we now endeavor, it is believing that it is possible and not merely a meaningless platitude. Action must follow on aspiration. It's good to have stars in our eyes as long as our feet are on the ground.

We have the tools we need. The responsibility for a better world is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Image credit: Wikipedia creative commons, GRI, Stuart Rankin, courtesy flickr 

Thomas Schueneman headshotThomas Schueneman

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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