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Integral Thinking & True Materiality – Part 2/7: The Need for a New Impetus

This 7-part series has been first published on Sustainable Brands between late January and early March 2016 as a 6-part series and a follow-up by Bill Baue, co-founder of Convetit and the Sustainability Context Group. It captures the essence of my thinking I was able to gather through the extraordinary work of the Reporting 3.0 Platform, GISR and the ThriveAbility Foundation in 2015. What came out is a structure that I called a ‘new impetus embracing purpose, success and scalability for thriving organizations’. I am reposting the original 6 parts here and add a part #7 with reflections of others. This is part 2/7.

Those of us who have been working in the areas of corporate sustainability and integrated reporting struggle to reconcile the gap between our aspirations for a world we envision, and the current world that falls short of sustainability and integration. More precisely some of the following aspect have also lead to the raison d’être of the three initiatives that I presented in Part 1. Here are the most important ones:

  • the fact that existing standards (GRI, IIRC, SASB, etc…) fall short of enabling if and when an organization will actually be ‚sustainable’. We call this the Sustainability Context Gap, which the Sustainability Context Group has been addressing with the major standard setters for years. Many Sustainability Context Group members are actively engaged in Reporting 3.0 as well as the Sustainable Brands community of practitioners.
  • the failure of linking corporate performance with social floors and environmental ceilings in ways that lead to organizational transformation and pioneering leadership. The ThriveAbility Foundation calls this a ‚three gap problem’, and, if not tackled all together, there is little chance of success that the reporting entity will ever be sustainable.

Bildschirmfoto 2016-03-09 um 11.07.01

Diagram 2: The 3-Gap-Problem defines the lack of ‚integral thinking’ (Source: A Leader’s Guide to ThriveAbility, page 33).

  • the still diverse understanding of materiality. Allen White, co-founder of GRI described this in a recent virtual dialogue, held to prepare the 2015 Reporting 3.0 conference: ‘Corporate reporting must keep pace with the realities of an economically and ecologically interdependent world. The narrow scope and short-term horizon of financial reporting is increasingly detached from the complexities and multiple performance drivers of 21st century organizations. It is a moment for leading initiatives to find common ground, synergies and win-win situations in laying the groundwork for the next decade of innovation and mainstreaming a new form of corporate reporting. It is time to remove the artificial distinctions between internal and external materiality’. In other words, companies need to address both what’s material when considering the interests of their own organization, and what’s material when considering broader societal interests.
  • the contracted notion of what is now called integrated reporting. This way of applying what the IIRC advocates for as ‘integrated thinking’ lacks two main components. First, integrated thinking is mainly used to increase the collaboration of departments within an organization and often still lacks fluid interaction with various sets of external stakeholders around the multiple capitals, which is traditionally addressed through old-fashioned dialogue, but has become less and less prevalent and truly functional as of late; and secondly, this sort of thinking misses out on two of the three gaps as described by the ThriveAbility Foundation, namely really instigating organizational transformation and pioneering leadership. Integrated thinking as articulated by IIRC falls short on these fronts, and thus fails to be truly ‘integral’.
  • the fact that accounting isn’t yet ready to shift toward multi-capital bookkeeping (even in trial pilot form). The litmus test of ‚integral’ approaches in accounting needs to showcase that financial capital hasn’t been built on the back of any other capital (natural, maufactured, social, human, relational, intellectual). Based on that the ThriveAbility Foundation offers the idea of ‚True Future Value’ as a new business equation of success, to be discussed in part 4 of this series.
  • the fact that many organizations pursue sustainability as a goal isolated from other aspects of the business. For example, most organizations focus on negative footprint reduction, and have yet to learn how to increase their positive impacts (handprints) and how to scale them up through their products and services, through collaboration, through advocation of their leaders, and by organizing their own operation around flexflows instead of hierarchies. Scalability of what works well and how it can be combined through yet unknown possibilities are often far out of sight.

In consequence of this list of struggles, strategy, organizational dynamics, data management, accounting and finally reporting need a new impetus if we want to tap the ‚transformational potential’ to become thriving organizations. We need trust, innovation and resilience as the outcome of a combined approach to renew the discussion around purpose, success and scalability, as shown in diagram 1 in Part 1 of this series. Part 3-5 will pick up on each element – purpose, success and scalability, while part 6 will look at the wanted effects – trust, innovation, resilience. Together, they define the future agenda of reporting as a trigger for sustainability – to create the future we envision.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2016 in Thriveability

 

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Reporting for the ‘future we create’ – shaping next-generation transparency

Recently the report of the October 6/7 Reporting 3.0 Platform Conference ‘Reporting at the crossroads – ensuring purpose, practicability, performance’ was posted at http://www.reporting3.org, together with a great video summary, a repository of presentations as well as an event gallery that wonderfully highlights the spirit and buzzing enthusiasm of the 170 participants from 4 continents and 13 countries. Please find the report attached here as well: R3_Conference_Report

I had the honor to curate the design and facilitate the conference on both days, together with a great team of BSD staff and voluntaries, and also wrote most parts of the conference report. During the whole process in the many months of preparing the conference (that included working on two Transition Labs and two Regional Roundtables), post-conference writing and thinking about how to shape Reporting 3.0 for 2015, I often wondered how much more would already be possible in reporting through a combination of existing vision, methodologies and tooling. Reporting 3.0 brought the majority of influencers together, so a glimpse of the possible was clearly visible already during the two days of the conference.

The report therefore also focuses on three main messages and gives a whole plethora of insights and examples:

1. The ingredients of the ‘green & inclusive economy’ are becoming much clearer and more tangible for corporate decision makers, investors and leading thinkers from academia and the civil society; 

2. New approaches, standards and benchmarks are under development or will be developed to close the ‘sustainability context gap’ in reporting; 

3. Information technology and respective providers offer new solutions for big data management and algorithms as well as applications that enable a new level of sustainability driven decision-making by corporate managers, investors and consumers.

As a teaser to read the full conference report I am also posting parts of my pre-conference speech that I held at the speakers dinner the day before the conference officially started here, shedding light on intentions, focus and ambitions.

“Let me start off by quoting Otto Scharmer, the author of Theory U, who once said, ‘We cannot transform the behaviour of systems (and the people in them) unless we transform the quality of attention that people apply to their actions within those systems, both individually and collectively’. I think this already comes quite close to what we want to achieve with Reporting 3.0, both the conference, but also the platform. We started off from three basic ideas: 1) that we will take serious the plea to achieve a green & inclusive economy and the design for a capitalism achieving that, made at Rio +20 in 2012; 2) that we believe that reporting has a trigger function to create necessary change (many from us come from the early days of sustainability reporting when that was indeed the case); 3) that reporting with that trigger function to achieve a green & inclusive economy will need to be different from what it is today, and most likely it is needed within just one decade.

Reporting 3.0 can change the ‚quality of attention that people apply to their actions towards an envisaged system’ through various pathways: 1) By taking note of the various developments that surround reporting, especially around new business models (circular, sharing, regenerative, restorative), and the enhanced role of (big) data, data architecture, and IT capabilities; 2) By assessing the necessary consequences of the idea of a green and inclusive economy to accounting, given the fact that these new business models need different accounting rules, and that accounting will need to embrace a grand design as well: true costing, true pricing, and even more necessary, true taxation, to balance the burdens to consumers and communities, and to allow to set new economic system boundaries in which market mechanisms can work towards the right direction, on a better and global level playing field; 3) By embracing the idea that measurement needs to much stronger close the sustainability context gap, meaning that macro-data and micro-data allow for assessing performance from a future-readiness perspective and give stakeholders confidence that what an organization says and does is good enough or in the right direction to achieve a green & inclusive economy.

Looking at the vast variety of players with different backgrounds, all knowingly or unknowingly part of the ‚grand design’, and many not from the reporting terrain, reporting more or less logically rather comes at the end of the thinking, if it comes up at all. And those in the reporting space often don’t have the time, capacity, capability to convene formats that deliver insights with these forward-looking players. They normally convene with other experts in the reporting field. The early infusion of knowledge to build the ecosystem for forward-looking reporting is rather uncovered terrain, reporting at this moment adapts to the unavoidable, and doesn’t deliver on a ‚grand design’.

To be clear, we already do benefit from what has been produced so far. There are indeed strong shoulders of that little child Reporting 3.0 to sit on! And still, not enough has been thought of, produced or tried out to sketch the new reporting landscape and to build a ‚grand design’, stemming from the North Star, the green & inclusive economy.”

 

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2014 in Sustainability Reporting

 

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Comparability of sustainability information – slaughtered on the altar of materiality?

This is the third of four installments of a blog series covering crucial sustainability reporting issues on materiality, sustainability context, comparability and stakeholder inclusiveness.

The GRI content principles – sustainability context, materiality, stakeholder inclusiveness and completeness – are forming a balanced set to give guidance on how to define what a ‚good’ sustainability report should cover. The focus of work pulling G4 together was on making that balance and the process of how to get to such reporting even more clear and crisp. While our last blogs were digging deeper into the need of putting real teeth into step 1 – defining sustainability context better – another principle from the report quality section, namely comparability, has started to be discussed. The reason for that is that most communication of GRI under the banner ‚what matters, where it matters’ zooms heavily into materiality, and questions start to arise on what that means for the other important reasoning for standardized reporting – producing information that can actually be compared. This discussion has a strong connection with our earlier plea on getting more clarity around sustainability context and working on micro-macro-linked indicators. The discussion around a potential lack of comparability is making painfully clear that not having worked on these potential indicators in the G4 development process will most likely break open a whole plethora of uncomparable information. We have enough experience how certain information was presented in sustainability reports so far: take SOMO’s 2013 study on energy companies disclosure, Transparency International’s 2012 study on reporting on anti-corruption indicators, or Deloitte’s 2012 study on zero impact growth strategies that examplified dozens of ways in which companies described their CO2 target-setting. Either information was presented in many different absolute or relative ways, or different information than asked for was published (should we call this pretending?), or no information was published at all, or no context was given on what was published (how would we call that then?). Our view here is: without micro-macro-linked indicators comparability will heavily suffer. The loop to our sustainability context plea and the need for ‚different’ indicators as we have them right now becomes clear when we consider the text in the Guidelines around comparability, the core sentences here are: „Comparisons between organizations require sensitivity to factors such as differences in organizational size, geographic influences, and other considerations that may affect the relative performance of an organization. When necessary, report preparers should consider providing context that helps report users understand the factors that may contribute to differences in performance between organizations.“ Together with the wording of the sustainability context principle we really doubt that consistency in reporting can be delivered in a way that comparability will at all become realistic with the current indicator set. In total, we think that the dilemma between focusing on materiality on the one hand, and delivering comparable information on the other hand, can’t be solved without micro-macro-based indicators. The existing indicators will not cut it, we have seen this all before! Work on micro-macro-based indicators will be necessary, the denominators of these indicators will need to help defining comparability, not the voluntary, company-by-company target setting (whose long-term basis is normally not disclosed – most likely because it doesn’t exist at all?). This status quo has several consequences and effects, and it is interesting to look at least at some of them:

  1. The work of rating & ranking organizations will continue to produce more confusion. As we continue to have information about how organizations became ‚less bad’, the more than 120+ different rankings & ratings will continue to produce ‚best-in-class’ champions, for none of them we know what that really means, since we don’t know what is feasibly ‚good enough’. We have seen first attempts of rating organizations to get out of this dead-end-street, e.g. Climate Counts or Inrate who themselves start to make the link to macro-based goals by simply setting them. As GISR also puts sustainability context clearly into the focus of ‚good’ ratings, the need to also consider macro-based information on global, regional and/or local level will also continue here. More comparability will most likely be the outcome.
  2. The lack of focus on micro-macro-based indicators will produce competition for GRI. A whole set of organizations already work on such indicators, first and foremost the Natural Step-based approach on the ‚Future-Fit-Benchmark’, an approach that includes Bob Willard and a set of sustainability reporting veterans. The Sustainability Context Group, around 120 members strong, has several members that actively work on other alternatives of context-based indicators, their plea to work on them together with GRI has been noted down there, but with no outcome so far. WBCSD has started to team up with the Stockholm Resilience Centre (and the various other players connected to them) to see how Vision 2050 can be supported by an Action 2020 and how ‚values-based reporting’ can be set up. Worthwhile to mention here is that this approach also includes tooling and accounting methods, so gets to a deeper level than to just think about reporting indicators, but also how to create the processes. WRI, CDP and WWF now work on ‚science-based target setting’ and has invited to several workshops. Also here, an increase in comparable information will be a foreseeable outcome.
  3. At this moment we also observe the development of the Sustainable Development Goals, to be presented in 2015. It will be interesting to see how they will develop further; as it stands right now they seem to be more sort of ‚corridors’ of change in 16 different issue areas, and it is not yet sure how interdependencies (nexus effects) will play out on this variety of areas. In our view it would be much more effective to take a step back and first develop a set of principles (based on the probably most important ‚North Star’ question: what will really make up a succesful green & inclusive economy?) and then define action areas with a special view on interconnectedness of effects to define clear and actionable roadmaps or adaptation plans on how to get there. Targets could be defined per region, taking into account the various cultural and mindset calibrations as well as timelines necessary to measure progress. These could be built into a comparability approach for defining indicators of change with actionable items where each company can define a positive impact (instead of concentrating on the reduction of negative impact). See it a bit like the approach Unilever took when they connected their mid-term target setting with main sustainability issue areas. It is no wonder to us that Unilever’s approach scores extremely well in certain ratings, e.g. the latest GlobeScan and SustainAbility Leaders Survey, published just a couple of days ago.
  4. As a side effect the lack of comparability also creates a revival of the discussion around what was supposed to be called ‚Beyond GDP’. First of all there is the question if GDP should be used as a denominator in order to increase comparability in micro-macro-based monetary and relative comparisons, but much more important there is also again increasing discussion about the usefulness to use GDP at all as a means to measure a valueable contribution of a single company. In our view this is a must-have discussion that will sparkle ideas on what ‚success’ really means for a society at large, it seemed to get stuck around the idea of happiness in the last couple of years, which in our view is a very individual mindset and difficult to standardize. Hence, there is a glimpse of hope, and it is good to see that GRI is also one of the partners in one of these projects, called ‚Measure what matters’, with amongst others the Green Economy Coalition, Accounting for Sustainability (who are the initiators of many good developments, e.g. IIRC as well), the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and IIED.
  5. We are still amazed to see how little companies are interested in defining what a ‚green & inclusive economy’ or ‚resilient economy’ actually means for themselves. That is mainly due to the lack of real comparison opportunities to give this vision real meaning. And it will remain like that as long as we don’t define the expected minimal and/or positive contribution per company and stakeholder. We refer to our last blog on the ‚mindset gap’ for further depth there. Comparison and target setting will be the most interesting pathways for competition in the future, so again ask yourself what all that focus on materiality will help if comparability possibilities will suffer from that in this heavily interconnected world in which nexus effects will be part of the comparability agenda, to be analyzed when thinking about sustainability context.

Overall, we expect that the discussion about comparability will become as vital as the one on materiality today, simply because more materiality will not automatically lead to more comparability of information (we fear even less), and more comparability focus will not simply lead to more materiality. There needs to be a balance as both are of critical importance to understand, define and act on these urgently needed adaptation plans towards the economic blueprint of the future, the ‚green & inclusive economy’. Authors: Ralph Thurm is the Founder & Managing Director of A|HEAD|ahead, Nick de Ruiter is partner at Sustainalize.

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in Sustainability Reporting

 

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The sudden ‚materiality shock’

This is the first of four installments of a blog series covering crucial sustainability reporting issues on materiality, sustainability context, comparability and stakeholder inclusiveness.

Spring 2014 seems to be the moment in time where ‚materiality’ suddenly appeared on the screen of corporate sustainability reporters. At least one could wonder why within a couple of weeks countless workshops popped up around the world, webcasts were announced and books were published just on this one single issue of the sustainability reporting agenda. One author even declared a calm ‚war on materiality’. But wait a minute, the issue of defining what is material in sustainability reports isn’t by far new, so what’s the reason for this sudden shake-up? Several reasons could be mentioned:

  1. Since the publication of GRI’s G4 Guidelines in May 2013 materiality went to the forefront of communication items around the new Guidelines. The reports based on G4 should show ‚what matters, where it matters’. For that reason GRI visualized the application of the four report content principles as one seamless workflow. But is this new? The answer is no, because the same process was already pulled together in a resource document in 2010, but now got finally included in the main document, the G4 Guidelines, without considerable changes. Also, GRI’s certified training program presented a five-step process since its inception years ago that followed this logic, and thousands of practitioners around the world were trained for doing exactly that – defining what is material.The reason for the extra attention lies elsewhere: the combination between impact definition, boundary setting, transparent stakeholder dialog and the level of disclosure that GRI is demanding in this thematic triangle adds rigour and demands a much more crisp process. Gone are the times when a mentioning of stakeholder dialog was enough, a materiality matrix could be presented without further process description on how this was pulled together, and the legal shortcut of 50%+1 share was enough to cut off responsibility in reporting due to the one boundary chosen by the legal counsellor. So, for some ‚what matters, where it matters’ now suddenly means ‚what hurts, where it hurts’, especially for those that define sustainability as an additional topic that needs to be addressed through a separate report, and where the corporate strategy isn’t that much connected with sustainability thinking.
  2. Another reason for the new level of attention can easily also be detected when looking through the outcomes of KPMG’s 2013 international report quality survey amongst the biggest 250 companies, many of them call themselves leaders in sustainability. Just a couple of numbers to clarify the problem: 13% of the reports do not identity megaforces that affect business at all, and from the other 87% at least some megaforces are identified, with climate change only affecting 55% of businesses, ecosystem degradation is a just a problem for 18% of the G250. One can only wonder how identifying ‚what matters, where it matters’ is at all possible if so little sustainability context analysis is done in the beginning of the materiality definition process. When looking at information how often companies do assess materiality, 58% do not give any indication and 19% indicate a limited assessment of materiality. That means that just 23% of the G250 have a thorough process in place to assess matariality. This is shocking evidence. Stakeholder inclusiveness is another painful area to look at. For only 45% the process link between stakeholders and the materiality process is clear, for the majority stake of 55% the process is not yet clear (34%) or not explained at all (21%). Finally looking at target setting one might expect that material issues would also lead to clear targets, but the opposite is true. 13% of the G250 haven’t declared any targets, 28% of the reports carry some targets with no clarity on how they relate to material issues. 23% of the reports carry information that links to less than 50% of material issues, and finally 36% carry targets that relate to more than 50% of the material issues. The shortcomings of these data explain very clearly why the pocess of cutting through from sustainability context information through stakeholder dialog to material issues now needs to get more rigour. Companies just did what needed to be done, just little of them did more than absolutely necessary. We leave it up the reader to contrast this information with the many CEO speeches that tell us how much sustainability is in the genes and DNA of their organization.
  3. A new level of recognition of materiality is surely also due to the growing number of frameworks and guidelines around corporate reporting. Whereas GRI addresses materiality from the perspective of all stakeholders, the IIRC clearly defines materiality from the point of view of the providers of financial capital. SASB just replicated the definition of the U.S. Supreme Court, focusing on shareholders only. And that whole array of different definitions seems to be confusing, especially as many users see these documents as standards. It is therefore time to step back and again recognize that none of these documents are ‚standards’ or ‚cooking books’. They are recommendations as they present guidance and framing. Not more, not less. Furthermore they are still all voluntary instruments to trigger thinking about the inclusion of sustainability into an organization’s core – the business model and the strategy. If this is managed well we think the discussion on materiality will by definition become a no-brainer.
  4. Lastly, there is new fuel to the fire of mandatory sustainability reporting through the positive vote of the European Parliament to amend the European Transparancy Directive and make sustainability reporting compulsary for roundabout 6.000 listed companies in Europe, with a size of more than 500 employees. The Directive passed the European Parliament on April 15, 2014. The Directive needs to be translated into member-states laws and regulation, so that the application is only expected to start in 2017 for reporting year 2016, maybe even one year later. In short, material issues of importance need to be reported in annual reports or sustainability reports on corporate level. Discussion arises mostly on the point of the EU’s definition of CSR, saying it entails all voluntary action of companies above and beyond what is legally already demanded for. In our view this definition is counterproductive to the real meaning of materiality, and therefore misleading to help describe the core of the issue. Nevertheless, the fact that many companies are now demanded to report on their sustainability risks and opportunities, covering a range of issues that is nearly 100% overlaping with the UN Global Compact 10 core principles, has put new emphasis on the materiality discussion in companies.

In our view there is only one useful way of dealing with the issue of materiality, and that is to step one step back from the idea of standards that would tell us what clearly has to be done. We see materiality in the closest of all possible meanings: all areas in which the company affects or is affected by those areas of sustainability it can influence by its existence and through its doing, through products, services, as enablers and advocates of positive change. The measurement of ‚Net Positive Impact’ will therefore become the future litmus test of the right to exist for companies. It would be good for companies to already follow in the footsteps of those frontrunners that aim doing exactly this ambitious step.

Authors: Ralph Thurm is the Founder & Managing Director of A|HEAD|ahead, Nick de Ruiter is partner at Sustainalize.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2014 in Sustainability Reporting

 

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Transition from GRI 3.1 to G4 – 10 reasons why there is no time to waste!

– By Ralph Thurm, A|HEAD|ahead, and Nick de Ruiter, Sustainalize –

The Global Reporting Initiative published their G4 Guidelines in May 2013, but at the same time announced that G3/G3.1 reports and the application level check services would be accepted until the end of 2015. In consequence, companies that want to continue reporting based on the requirements of the GRI Guidelines have time until 2016 to declare either core or comprehensive ‚in accordance’ with the G4 Guidelines. Does this indicate that companies would have ample time to transition towards G4 and more than 2 years still to go with G3/G3.1?

In our view this is a dangerous perception, both based on the different – and sharpened – requirements G4 poses and a critical reflection of the time needed to build the necessary understanding, internal buy-in and systems readiness to be able to comply. Also, an incorrect application of G4 makes that your report becomes too broad, too thick and lacks in relevancy. Here’s a variety of 10 reasons why we think there is no time to waste – working on the transition needs to start now!

  1. Understanding materiality is crucial. A company’s impact, related boundaries and focus on materiality are much more strongly emphasized in G4, some of them described in more depth below, but the consequences of that push by GRI go much deeper. While GRI G4 is out now and the requirements become slowly clearer (G4 is nicely designed, but still no easy read), companies need to ‚delearn’ G3/G3.1 first. Ignoring materiality could quite easily lead to an irrelevant and a report which is too broad. The flexibility of interpreting and reporting on certain indicators, the lax regime on the use of omissions, the 3 applications levels, and the comfortable, reductionistic and legalistic boundary setting, these days are gone.
  2. Sustainability needs to be part of your strategy. In order to better understand a company’s impact(s) – which in consequence will help to define boundary setting and material aspects for reporting– there needs to be a willingness of top management to look at sustainability in a more strategic way. For existing businesses we know that this can be a layered, multi-year process, and is demanding a personal openness of top managers and a willingness of letting go of certain mental stereotypes. Some of them are
    1. Short-termism driving hectic actionism for quick successes;
    2. Sustainability as merely risk management, thereby ignoring the fact that sustainability can be positioned as a means to distinguish yourselve from competitors;
    3. the avoidance of mid- to long-term (SMART) target setting including a clear positioning of the legacy and right to exist (today and in the future);
    4. data and performance become a goal in itself. The lack of the ability to accept that relationships will drive success and not over-ambitious targets that lead to customer dissatisfaction, stressed-out employees, and – in the worst case – neglect of aspects like human rights, environmental protection, and anti-corruption.
  3. You need to analyse and understand your impacts. While top-management commitment is necessary and needs to go further than just words, the ability to understanding a company’s impact needs to include various actions, amongst them
    1. understanding impact based on root causes, including environmental degradation, demographic effects, technological changes, world trade developments, urbanization and transparancy development and how the company is affected by this nexus as well as how the company itself affects others and these root causes. Many sustainability strategy development projects visibly have not gone through this important step, e.g. a simple ‚reduction of CO2 emissions’ target without a program of how to tackle different route causes will remain on the symptoms level and risks any effectiveness, and more dangerously could lead to wrong decisions, think of simple outsourcing of effects into the supply chain and where effects can even be worsened.
    2. the willingness to work on various scenarios that can describe a company’s reaction to the effects identified and where they occur in the value cycle (that in contrast to the value chain which is a concept based on a throughput economy). This includes an active exchange or even shared work with partners up and down the value cycle.
    3. The willingness to gather data about impacts and therefore prepare a readiness to discuss with stakeholders from an informed perspective.
  4. The number of disclosures have been expanded. While the abovementioned steps are in our view necessary actions to define a sustainability strategy, GRI G4 is urging to also make early decisions about the ‚in accordance’ level. While both levels – core and comprehensive – put a materiality focus on top, there is a huge difference in disclosures. If a reporter is aiming for comprehensive reporting, the level of information that needs to be ready is considerably higher and should be reported for multiple years. Examples are disclosures on governance and remuneration, supply chain, anti-corruption, GHG emissions as well as ethics & integrity. It is therefore necessary to prepare the necessary data spectrum early on and define necessary ‚owners’, both with regard to responsibility as well as for the disclosures.
  5. Boundary setting has been changed. The G4 Guidelines have also changed the approach to boundary setting. While G3/G3.1 still allows a rather legalistic-reductionist approach based on ownership structures, G4 now asks for the definition of boundaries based on the underlying impacts. This is the reaction to the neglection of impacts down the supply chain – most companies never got beyond a policy level in their interaction with suppliers in the quest of reduced impact – and is now a major challenge internally in terms of data availability and enforcement of targets and policies.
  6. The stakeholder dialogue becomes more important. It is to be expected that the stakeholder dialogue process will see a change in depth and quality due to the new requirements of G4. Not only does the reporter have to clarify how the involvement of stakeholders was organized, but also how the dialogue has lead to the selection of material aspects. Obviously the company needs to be well prepared for this dialogue. It is recommended to use the sustainability context insight derived from a thorough impact-based assessment as a necessary precondition to have an informed and effective dialogue about the material aspects. This means that a proper stakeholder dialogue is less of a simple ‚negotiation’ between the company and its stakeholders, but a shared and joint point of view and therefore less confrontative, but more collaborative.
  7. Understanding the sustainability context is essential. Meaningful reporting demands a clear view in how far a company contributes – positively and/or negatively – to the most urging problem areas on this planet (or aspects in the language if GRI G4). The G4 guidelines demand certain disclosures, but many of them simply describe efficiency increases (in relation to earlier reporting periods), relative changes or compliance and quality in following a certain due dilligence (audits done, shortcomings recorded, mitigation measures taken). Overall, many of the indicators do not give the reader the impression that what a company has done is at least ‚good enough’ in the light of the global urgencies. This shortcoming in G4 (which also existed in G3 already) has been called the ‚sustainability context gap’ and refers to the requirements of the sustainability context principles in G4. Every company needs to have a good view on their micro-performance against a macro dataset (e.g. the ecological footprint, data from TEEB, etc.). This enables companies in setting focused strategies, it makes communication about real impact possible and facilitates readers in reviewing and understanding the actual performance.
  8. There will be less room for omissions. Another point to start working on the transition to G4 now, is the use of omissions as common in the GRI 3/3.1 Guidelines. GRI G4 has put a halt on the use of number of omissions as well as not allowing any omission without proper reasoning. With just 4 specific ones that are allowed (indicator not applicable and why, confidentiality constraints, legal prohibitions, and unavailability of data with a reference until when the company expects to have the data available). The use of a larger number of omissions may lead to a ‚invalidation’ of the claim for core or comprehensive in accordance reporting. It is not yet clear what process the GRI will adopt in the light of the new regime, but it is to be expected that companies claiming a certain level will at least need to notify GRI about it.
  9. Sector specific information is integrated in the reporting requirements. Sector supplements will be become an integral part of the reporting requirements both for core and comprehensive in accordance with GRI G4. This means that a reporting approach needs to take that fact into account from the start of the reporting process design. The luxury to just use feasible sector supplement indicators to obtain the highest grading (A/A+ in GRI 3/G3.1) will disappear.
  10. There are more frameworks, ratings and guidelines evolving. Additional frameworks like IIRC’s Framwork for Integrated Reporting, sector specifications as proposed by SASB (the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board) and GISR (Global Initiative of Sustainability Ratings) and the consequences of their focus, logic, requirements and information enlarge the plethora of reporting requirements. IIRC’s capital model, SASB’s industry-specific indicators, and at a later stage the recommendations by GISR on how to safeguard quality in ratings are maturing and will become evident in the coming two years (well within the timeline until GRI G4 will require in accordance statement by reporters). Together with all abovementioned reasons we think there is no time to waste to start using the combined set of requirements for the design of a continuously improving reporting regime.

Authors: Ralph Thurm is the Founder & Managing Director of A|HEAD|ahead, Nick de Ruiter is partner at Sustainalize. This is their first joint blog post and is posted on both blog sites.

 
 

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GRI G4: A Gateway to Meaningful Sustainability Reporting?

[This blog was first published on CSRwire Talkback on June 11, 2013; http://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/883-gri-g4-a-gateway-to-meaningful-sustainability-reporting].

On May 22nd, GRI published the fourth generation of GRI Guidelines at a major conference in Amsterdam. But has GRI’s multi-stakeholder process delivered what is appropriate given the global multi-faceted sustainability nexus of global challenges? Or is G4 a compromise to what is currently possible to attract many more thousands of companies to sustainability reporting?

This at a time when new players like the International Integrated Reporting Committee [IIRC], the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board [SASB] and Global Initiative for Sustainability Reporting [GISR] are hitting the stage and creating some confusion with reporters about the relative importance of the pieces in this new plethora of tools?

G4: The Promise vs. Implementation

One has to read G4 very carefully to conclude that it can indeed – theoretically – deliver more meaningful reports through several changes made in the focus, structure, language and clarity of the guidelines. The crux really will be, if G4 is applied accordingly, accepting the very positive ambition of the authors, confirmed by the GRI governance bodies and several thousands of people that were involved through the working groups and feedback processes. Or will G4 be abused by a rather lax and unaccounted watering down of the reporting process? Only experienced, industry-specialized raters, rankers and alert stakeholders will be able to tell. Critical watchdogs like SOMO that looked at the application of the A, B, C system in G3/G3.1 and who complained about the lagging and unspecified indicator coverage in certain sectors and reporting areas have given us a taste of what is needed in the future on a much broader scale. To understand G4, we first need to de-learn G3.

Unlearning the G3

Forget about application levels and the extra plus for assurance, no matter if one indicator, incremental or reasonable assurance processes were applied. Forget about the GRI application level checks. G4 asks for self-assessments, supported by a flexible, but transparent application of external assurance. Forget about core and additional indicators. And forget about leaning back and ignoring your supply chain impacts because G3 allowed you to just report on those parts of your supply chain where you had a majority share in. And finally forget about too much flexibility to interpret an indicator much differently than literally defined in G3. All this now finds a place in the historical archive of GRI. Materiality was the magic word that you couldn’t escape from at the G4 launch conference. Reports should be as meaningful as possible while as concise as needed. GRI’s G4 development process mostly focused on a much better description of the reporting process to come to that specific selection. A much better description of the application of the four report content principles was needed, and one in which boundaries become functions of impact.

Abstracts: Pushing for Transparency + Sustainability Context

In consequence, the reporting boundaries can now vary per aspect and are no longer abstract legal constructs. GRI is now asking for much more transparency about this process and its outcomes, which helps to understand some of the context in which those crucial decisions have been made. A legal counselor can’t be the restrictive entity to define any more what needs to go into a report and what not; of course aspects of liability, litigation and reputation are sometimes tricky, but there is a common sense behind this whole exercise of transparency – to avoid those questions from the very beginning! Additionally, G4 puts much more focus on the reporter’s impact in the supply chain. Visibly, supply chain cuts through all three dimensions – economic, environmental and social – of the G4 Guidelines, through indicators around supplier assessments, the results and consequences of these assessments and grievance mechanisms in case of dispute. This is clearly a big step forward towards meaningful reporting. Together with the right application of the reporting principles and the boundary setting, the spectrum of reporting elements, while focused on the most material aspects, is enlarging. Aspect-specific boundaries will tell us much more about where a company thinks its responsibility starts and ends. Sustainability context, the most neglected of the four report content principles, can support a proper first step. Again, it needs to be applied correctly to bear the fruits of the more rigorous process.

Forgiving Material Omissions

G4 comes with a new system on how to be in accordance with the Guidelines, namely ‘core’ and ‘comprehensive’. While Elaine Cohen and Monaem Ben Lellahom elaborated on how these will work earlier this month on Talkback, taking into account that most indicators ask for multiple data points or qualitative descriptions, an experienced reporter that has data accuracy guaranteed will still feel challenged. I doubt that we will see many comprehensive reports in the first one or two years, even though the known holding message called ‘omission’ is still allowed for comprehensive reporters. It will be a fine line for the ambitious reporters to assess how much omission is acceptable for stakeholders before committing to become ‘comprehensive.’ There is a danger that using too many omissions in material aspects will backfire. Core reports are not allowed to use omissions due to the fewer number of indicators demanded. In that regard, the GRI also allows the use of the G3/G3.1 Guidelines for another two full reporting cycles, so the pressure to switch is rather low anyway. Finally, assurance: the ‘in accordance’ context index is now asking for assurance evidence per indicator and for all standard disclosures. It will be quick and easy to see what has been assured and what not. Also, G4 asks for page references for the External Assurance Statement, so the level of assurance – limited or reasonable – will become more transparent making it difficult for a comprehensive reporter to present a patchwork without a proper opinion about where to go with assurance in the future. So those are the main highlights of GRI’s G4.

License to Operate: Promises, Promises

The texts in both parts of G4 try to help the reader better understand the link to existing other global standards (OECD, UN GC, ILO). Still little is said about the link to integrated reporting, and nothing yet on the new players [CDP, SASB or GISR], but that’s understandable given either their regional focus or limited time of existence. Although MoUs now exist between GRI and many of the other players in this reporting landscape, there are still many open questions, mainly about synchronization, timing, responsibilities and overlap. How much that will lead to a vacuum in companies to find the right application opens new potential for the wrong application of G4. As I said earlier, it will need very experienced groups of reporting experts to offer a third-party review beyond the black boxes of rankings and ratings and single-focus advocacy of labor, human rights, anti-corruption or environmental groups. These groups will also need to push for further improvements of the reporting standards, since the biggest challenge in reporting remains unaddressed even now: making reporting fit to address the real sustainability context challenges through indicators that combine micro-performance with macro challenges. While the report content principle on sustainability context rightly addresses the need to create those micro-macro links in G4, the indicator section in GRI G4 hasn’t closed that gap. In sum, while G4 is a step in the right direction, it needs to develop further, either standalone or within the closer context of integrated reporting. Now everything depends on the correct use of G4 and the ability to make reporting ready for the real purpose: why has a company the right to exist in a green and inclusive economy?

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2013 in Sustainability Reporting

 

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