By Andrew Budsock and Sebastian Richter
We all operate in a dynamic, fast-paced environment shaped daily by changing policies, standards and management tools. With the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we entered Jeffrey Sachs’s age of sustainable development where every organization, regardless of geography, industry or size, takes on a shared responsibility. Some fear that this may add to the reporting burden since we all grapple with the process of identifying material topics, others see potential benefits from latching onto the SDGs. With an estimated $12 trillion USD resulting from revenue and saving associated with achieving the SDGs by 2030, realizing the vision for sustainable development could also make for a great business case. The SDGs explicitly recognize reporting: SDG target 12.6 encourages companies to integrate sustainability disclosure in their reporting cycles.
A practitioner’s perspective
Let us dispel some of the common myths in sustainability reporting.
GRI-based reporting is not a simple checklist exercise. Buy-in at the management level is a main success factor, yet often a struggle to leverage. Determining materiality and obtaining/managing accurate sustainability-related data needed for obtaining larger goals, take teamwork. Yet, internal barriers prevail, such as working in silos and lack of an available budget. In one of the ISOS Group-led GRI trainings last September, a participant - representing a multinational corporation - openly stated that they look at their GRI Report as a data-driven document from a compliance perspective; a rather symptomatic mindset for our field.
Taking sustainability reporting seriously means a change of management - a break from business-as-usual. It allows us to tackle sustainability issues in a managerial manner, whereas SDGs prompt us to rethink what and how to establish an organization’s sustainability roadmap.
Not everyone inside, or outside, the organization can take the time to understand the technical parameters of developing a GRI-based report. Whereas, the SDGs can be more easily spoon-fed to a busy C-Suite, communications teams looking for that next big story, investors wanting to see demonstrated traction against a global agenda or individuals hungry for issues to get behind. In that sense, both, GRI reporting and alignment to the SDGs, go hand-in-hand.
A researcher’s perspective
Another view on this subject matter does research provide the interface of evidence-based decision making. However, one of the limitations with this angle is that sustainability itself is a highly fragmented young transdisciplinary field with many interdisciplinary links and ongoing discourses. For example, scholars like Starik & Kanashiro argue that none of the conventional management theories seem to capture the comprehensive nature of sustainability and its implications; and therefore, do not sufficiently provide guidance for practitioners on individual, organizational or societal levels. A respective theory of sustainability management for instance is still in its infancy and far from mainstream organizational practices. According to a PwC survey from 2015, the majority of companies are aware of the SDGs, and almost three quarters of them are planning to respond to the goals. However, less than 15 percent of them identified the tools they need. Interestingly and despite the potential of the SDGs to help set corporate performance targets, the 2017 BSR/GlobeScan survey also found that there are companies which categorically do not intend to use the SDGs, but remain silent about possible reasonings.
So what do we as professionals do with such insights?
- Yes, the SDGs are global and provide a guiding framework of 169 targets and 230 indicators, yet not every goal and target is relevant to your organization. Pick the one most relevant for you. GRI can help with that by infusing the SDGs into the materiality process upfront and then again on the back end when setting goals.
- Follow an incremental step-by-step approach to sketching out your roadmap instead of aiming too high. Nobody expects you to jump start with a comprehensive GRI report that covers all SDGs. Like other traditional management practices, it is a process of continuous improvement.
- Use the SDGs as a common language and engine for institutionalizing sustainability agendas, especially in the context of international operations and its workforce. GRI complements the managerial component.
In sum, harnessing the inherent synergies of the SDGs with GRI generates a win-win situation for all of us; organizations, people and the planet - and it is doable!
Andrew Budsock is a Communications and Social Media Consultant at ISOS Group. His thought leadership is well recognized, particularly at IMPAKTER as a Columnist and Editor, through his role as a Board Member at the Global Sourcing Council and in building momentum for the SDGs in the U.S.
Sebastian Richter is a Sustainability Consultant for Strategy & Development at ISOS Group. His multi-disciplinary and international expertise stems from years of advisory services and project management, building institutional capacities toward sustainable development on the ground in developing and developed countries.