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GRI and <IR> – Background and Detail, by Fiona Sprott

Founded in Boston in 1997, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) grew out of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) and The Tellus Institute, with input from The United Nations Environment Program. GRI has developed a reporting framework for organisations in all sectors of the economy to use as a guide for communicating the impact of their actions on sustainability issues such as climate change, human rights, natural resources, social wellbeing and governance. They state their mission as:

‘A thriving global community that lifts humanity and enhances the resources on which all life depends’


‘To empower decisions that create social, environmental and economic benefits for everyone.’

The early history of GRI saw the setting up of a multi stakeholder Steering Committee to establish its vision and goals, and expand its scope beyond the core concern of the environment to include social, economic and governance issues. In 1998, GRI developed a Sustainability Reporting Framework which proposed key guidelines for sustainability reporting. In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, GRI launched the second generation of their guidelines for reporting (G2). By this time, GRI was set up as a non-profit organisation in its own right, breaking away from CERES. In 2003, GRI invited a range of organisations to put their name to the mission, and join a Stakeholder Council (SC) with representation from civil, business, financial, governmental and academic sectors.

By 2005, support for GRI and the demand for their reporting framework had grown substantially. Over 3,000 representative experts from a diverse range of sectors contributed to the development of the third generation of the framework (G3). The first global conference on Sustainability and Transparency was held, in Amsterdam, attracting 1,150 participants from 65 countries. GRI went on to enter into formal partnerships with the United Nations Global Compact, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This was the beginning of the next stage of expansion and development to implement their reporting framework practically.

In 2007, GRI moved into educational publication with the release of Pathways 1. This was an instructional guide to assist those producing reports of all types. They set up regional offices referred to as Focal Points, beginning with an office in Brazil. They also launched their Application Level Service, which allowed users to self-assess whether their own sustainability reports were meeting required levels of disclosure.

With this suite of programs, partnerships and outlets established, GRI steadily progressed through to its current state of operations. In 2016 GRI launched the inaugural global standards for sustainability reporting (GRI Standards) which enables all organisations to report on their economic, environmental and social impacts and demonstrate how they are actively addressing sustainable development. These standards are considered a trusted reference for policy makers and regulators, available in a modular structure to facilitate easy access to relevant information and to be maintained with updated, current information. The current GRI Standards guidelines adopt clear and simple language to make it easy to understand and use. In 2016 GRI held its 5th Global Conference, with approximately 1,200 leaders in the field of sustainability from 73 countries attending.

Information on GRI and access to the GRI Standards and other publications, databases of information and resources are available at their website: history/Pages/GRI’s%20history.aspx.

For articles and opinion pieces on the effectiveness of GRI Standards in practice, Environmental Leader publishes extensively on their website:

Integrated Reporting (<IR>) refers to improvements in integrating the financial and non-financial information contained in an annual report generated by profit and non-profit organisations with official reporting obligations. Commercial firms have obligations to communicate key information on how they are performing financially for the benefit of their shareholders who have invested money and are entitled to a portion of any profits. For non-profit organisations, reporting requirements are geared to funding agreements, donors and managerial oversight structures. A non-profit organisation might want to craft its annual report with the view to attracting new funding, just as a for-profit corporation might want to use it to attract new shareholders. Both types of organisation might use their annual reports as a marketing tool or recruiting tool. The key difference is that shareholders are legally invested in for-profit companies, while stakeholders are not, and are therefore not necessarily entitled to certain information.

Information on the history and development of <IR> can be found at their website:

In 2017, the accounting firm Deloitte released ‘Annual Report Insights 2017, based on a survey of 100 UK listed companies. They assessed reports against a range of criteria, including the use of alternative performance measures. Compared to 20 years previously where annual reports were on average 43 per cent narrative and 57 per cent financial data, in 2017 narrative sections made up an average of 61 per cent of annual reports. Interestingly Deloitte found that over 60 per cent of the companies focused their attention on communicating the value they created for stakeholders rather than shareholders, and there was an increasing use of KPIs related to employees, customers, and off-balance-sheet resources. Deloitte also highlighted the progress of <IR>.

The report can be viewed or downloaded from their website: insights.html

A short time later, another accounting firm, KPMG, published ‘The KPMG Survey of Corporate Responsibility Reporting 2017’, a survey of 4,900 worldwide companies, including the top 100. This survey also discusses the progress of <IR>, with a specific focus on production of a Corporate Responsibility report, and the addressing of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Its Executive Summary comments that ‘reporting integration is the new normal and “non-financial” is the new financial’ and that ‘statistics increasingly lack real meaning without information on context and impact’. KPMG argue that the challenge for modern organisations is to go beyond just reporting statistics, and communicate the impact of their activities more comprehensively. In other words, to tell the story of how a company is meeting not only its financial and legal governance requirements, but what impact its actions are having on global sustainability and future value creation. It predicts that more reporting regulation will come into play, and firms can expect that the ‘international reporting landscape will continue to be fragmented and dynamic for the foreseeable future’.

The report can be viewed or downloaded from their website: corporate-responsibility-reporting-2017.html

With the emergence of <IR> and the Integrated International Reporting Council (IIRC), debate has arisen around whether to adopt GRI Standards or <IR> frameworks. Recent literature and commentary have attempted comparison of the various tools and strategies put forward and in 2017 GRI partnered with IIRC to address the range of issues highlighted. The Corporate Leadership group on integrated reporting will investigate how to leverage sustainability reporting within the <IR> framework for best alignment of disclosure.

A quick review of online discussions dedicated to offering advice on improving communication in reporting indicate the following to be important in writing reports:

1.Keep things simple.

2.Use visual material to illustrate the data.

3.Tell a compelling, emotionally engaging story.

4.Think about adaptability of delivery to different audiences. For example, produce one full report for shareholders and/or significant funding agencies, and a microsite on the web for a broader audience with hyperlinks to deeper information if the reader wishes to access it.

The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) released a report in 2017 on analysis of uptake of <IR> in 41 corporate reports sampled from around the world, ‘Insights into Integrated Reporting’. They propose the adoption of key changes to improve the effectiveness of integrated reports. See their commentary and recommendations on their findings published on the ACCA website: integrated-reporting.html Some blogs offer lists of ‘imaginative’ or ‘creative’ approaches to annual reports which are good illustrations of the above trends. They provide examples of delivering information in ways that are simplified, visually driven, and communicate the character of what an organisation does more effectively than boilerplate formats. Their examples focus on story, image, and the reader experience. They show modern reports as actively cultivating the understanding of their readership, and engagement with the information presented. Typically, report narratives are clear and sparse, while financial data is highly focused and visually presented:

Websites: ref=1692&ext=pdf&k=1820f83246&search=&offset=0 &order_by=relevance&sort=DESC&archive=0& /#frontpage
(Good for financial data and stats design in a slideshow format like mail chimp use). /#frontpage
(Nice example of slideshow format with storytelling at heart of presenting data).

What Matters?

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