GRI: A global approach to report on sustainable development

GRI: A global approach to report on sustainable development

An article written by Thomas Collin, corporate social responsibility officer at ABBL, about the GRI (Global Reporting Intitiative) Certified Professional + Programme he attended thanks to an scholarship.

7 years. That’s all that is left to attain the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by their 2030 deadline. In 2015, governments promised to reach 17 such goals, from eliminating hunger and malnourishment to addressing adverse climate change. On the surface, the Goals may appear like utopic ambitions that most countries in the world have small chances to actually reach[1]. Still, the SDGs provide a common frame of reference regarding what counts as contributing to sustainable development. As such, they have become a key component in national sustainable development plans. Yet sovereign states cannot reach these ambitious objectives, and businesses and civil society have to play their part as well.

But where should businesses start? Another distinctive feature of the SDGs is that they pack 169 targets under the hood. These targets, and their associated indicators, bring more clarity on how to achieve the broader goals. But they also form a complex network of impact areas, full of synergies and trade-offs. For instance, providing safe and affordable water to would help reducing under-five mortality rates but is also energy-intensive[2]. Improving a specific area of the Goals may also impact other of its dimensions, positively or negatively, whether intentional or unvoluntary.

Corporate sustainability reporting has a role to play on advancing the development goals, as it creates accountability, drives business strategy and allows key stakeholders to assess the impacts of an organisation more effectively. Companies often mention the SDGs in their sustainability-related disclosures but have unfortunately little to show for it. A 2019 study by PwC found that, out of a sample of more than 1,000 companies publishing sustainability reports, 14% of them mentioned some of those targets. Only 1% of the analysed companies had reported quantitative measures to show their progress towards SDG targets[3]. Such results are hardly surprising. Corporate reporting on sustainable development has long remained a purely voluntary exercise. Finding

GRI and the UN Global Compact have developed common practical guidance to help corporates embed the SDGs in their existing operational and reporting processes[4] using a three-step process:

  1. Defining priority SDG targets
  2. Measuring and analysing
  3. Reporting, integrating and implementing change

The process of principled prioritisation outlined by the co-authors allows companies to prioritise SDG targets based on an assessment of risks and benefits to people and the environment. This principle may sound familiar to seasoned GRI reporters, as it is closely aligned with that of impact materiality (see our previous article ‘GRI: Last calls). The next step entails finding relevant corporate disclosures for each identified target. GRI and the UN Global Compact also provide useful guidance in that area[5]. Where organisations find no existing disclosures for certain areas, they may turn to GRI 3-3 ‘Management of material topics’ for guidance instead. In the final phase of the proposed process, companies report information intended to reflect how the SDGs were embedded in their strategy, taking the information needs of various stakeholders into account.

But SDG targets must be managed with caution. Report preparers should watch out for the temptation to cherry pick goals and target that appear easiest to work or to report on. They should also be mindful that SDG washing is a thing. The interwoven nature of the SDGs must be considered, too. Any negative impacts produced through their actions towards the goals should be acknowledged in sustainability reports, lest the sustainability reporting practices becomes a virtue signalling exercise.

[1] Moyer, J.D. & Hedden, S. (2020). Are we on the right path to achieve the sustainable development goals?.

[2] Griggs, D.J., Nilsson, M., Stevance, A., McCollum, D. (2017). A guide to SDG interactions: From science to implementation.

[3] PwC. (2019). SDG Challenge 2019.

[4] GRI & UNGC (2018). Integrating the Sustainable Development Goals into Corporate Reporting: A Practical Guide.

[5] GRI & UNGC (2018). An analysis of the Goals and Targets.