What is a Sustainability Report? What is a GRI Report? What is the Difference?

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What is a Sustainability Report? What is a GRI Report? What is the Difference?

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Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 7:00pm

In a recent blog post, Dilemma of GRI Reporting Stats in the US – Needs Grain of Salt?, Prizma does a nice job articulating the uncertainty about what counts as an “official” GRI report and challenges the reader to categorize what they consider to be borderline cases (Apple, Cummins and Yum) as either “GRI-Referenced” or “a GRI Report”.  Prizma has raised a provocative question and I agree that some clarity is needed.  This is a concern about which I have given a great deal thought ever since BrownFlynn’s adjunct trainer Steve Voien raised it during one of our GRI-Certified training courses last year.

They key question is this: When does a sustainability report become a GRI report?

BrownFlynn’s answer: A sustainability report becomes a GRI report when an Application Level is declared.

In order to understand why we came to this, I need to point out some key components of the GRI Framework that are important to keep in mind when discussing this topic – the GRI Profile Disclosures, GRI Disclosure on Management Approach and the implicit quality controls that GRI has in place for those who declare an Application Level.

These important differences (discussed in our recent whitepaper GRI Application Levels: Why Strive for an A?) lead me to call all three of Prizma’s borderline cases (Apple, Cummins and Yum) “GRI Referenced”–i.e., not a GRI report.  Why?  Because none of these three reports disclose even the minimum stakeholder engagement and materiality analysis required to declare a GRI Application Level.

Never mind the number of indicators…the reason why GRI reporting is an “upgrade” from other CSR responsibility reporting is because of the internal discussions that are prompted during pursuit of a GRI Application Level (especially Level A or B).  We find that the pursuit of an Application Level prompts internal discussions that improve governance, attention to key impacts, sustainability policies, procedures, training strategy, goals, internal controls and ultimately sustainability performance.

Producing a “GRI Referenced” report is simply a matter of adding an index that cross references to any number and set of GRI metrics (and usually only to indicators).  But producing a report with an Application Level requires demonstration of sustainability management strategies, which seems to be exactly what we want in an “official” GRI report.

My advice: If you want to know whether a given report is an “official” GRI report, search for the term “Application Level” instead of “GRI”.  If you find that an Application Level is declared (A, B or C), then you can be certain that the company has committed to report or explain a certain standard set of disclosures.  Without an Application Level, you just don’t know what to expect, regardless of how many times the word “GRI” shows up in the report.

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