In April of this year (2011), the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) announced its Report or Explain campaign, in which it called upon companies around the world to either report on their sustainability performance or explain why they don’t. We support that campaign, but would also like to see GRI fully enforce its own reporting guidelines or explain why it doesn’t. Of most importance is the ‘sustainability context’ requirement, which GRI clearly does not enforce.
As GRI itself points out in its guidelines, performance disclosures in corporate sustainability reports must be expressed in context – in sustainability context, that is. It is not enough to simply report on trends in eco-efficiency or favorable social or economic impacts of one kind or another. Rather, sustainability performance involves social and environmental impacts relative to norms, standards or thresholds for what such impacts would have to be in order to be sustainable.
Indeed, in GRI’s own words, performance must be reported “in relation to information about economic, environmental, and social conditions in relevant locations, e.g., discussing water consumption in relation to available supply in a particular location (GRI, TP, p. 6).” Impacts on vital resources, that is (including human and social resources), must be reported relative to norms, standards or thresholds for what they would have to be in order to be sustainable.
GRI fails to enforce the ‘sustainability context’ principle in its guidelines in three ways: 1) it fails to provide sufficient guidance for how to comply with it, 2) it regularly endorses superior ratings for reports that are completely devoid of such context, and 3) it excludes sustainability context in its own reports thereby setting the wrong kind of example.
To be clear, reporting on the sustainability performance of an organization cannot be done without including context – sustainability context – in the mix. As long as context is missing in related reports, the true sustainability performance of organizations will never be known - cannot be known! It is vitally important, therefore, that as the source of the leading international standard for corporate sustainability reporting, GRI take its own standards seriously and take steps to enforce the sustainability context component of its guidelines. Or if not, explain why not. The legitimacy of reporting hangs in the balance.