Interview with GRI’s Chief of Standards and Chief Development Officer
Earth Day is an opportunity to put the spotlight on the pressing needs of our planet, in the face of ever growing impacts by humanity, and galvanize action to change practices and behavior. The corporate contribution to these impacts — by businesses and other organizations around the world — is significant. Therefore the role of companies, in participating in solutions that safeguard the natural environment, are also crucial.
To identify and recognize how a company is impacting on the sustainability of the Earth, the starting point is transparency. The GRI Standards — the world’s most widely for sustainability reporting — offer any organization a common language for communicating their impacts on people and planet.
So, what is the role of GRI, through reporting, in catalyzing action by organizations, large and small, to safeguard the environment? Bastian Buck, GRI Chief of Standards, and Marco van der Ree, GRI Chief Development Officer, participate in a Q&A to share more.
The theme of Earth Day 2021 is, ‘Together, we can prevent the coming disasters of climate change and environmental destruction. Together, we can Restore Our Earth’. This is a significant ask. How can sustainability reporting support the required action — by companies, governments or other organizations?
Marco: We know the planet is in serious distress and organizations need to understand their impact — positive and negative — on the planet. GRI reporting essentially provides them with a ‘risk map’, so they can identify where they have impacts and consequently what action they need to take.
Bastian: Communicating their impact through our Standards enables companies to have important, timely societal dialogues with their stakeholders — including customers, investors, civil society and governments. What sustainability reporting does is to provide information that is critical in decision-making processes, internal and external to the company. helping companies and stakeholders determine their role in this transitional moment in the global debate on how to restore our planet.
Addressing environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are key focus areas for Earth Day. How do the GRI Standards relate to this? What is GRI doing to ensure the Standards remain relevant and capture impacts in these crucial areas?
Bastian: Disclosure on environmental impacts has always been at the core of the GRI Standards and our standard setting activities. What they also do is address the corresponding societal topics that cannot be ignored, if organizations are to fully understand and change how they impact on the environment. Progress to net zero by 2050 or stopping biodiversity loss, for example, have broader societal impacts and that’s why comprehensive sustainability reporting is needed that gives a holistic picture.
Marco: GRI covers topics that range from biodiversity to energy, water to emissions — all of which help companies understand their environmental impact. We don’t stand still and regularly update or add new Standards, as guided by changing societal expectations on good corporate behavior. For example, in 2020 our new Waste Standard launched, which seeks to enable companies move away from the ‘take make waste’ model and embrace circular practices.
Recent research from KPMG indicates that the number of companies conducting sustainability reporting rises year on year. Most larger companies now do so — with a majority choosing to use the GRI Standards. What is the biggest challenge to continuing to spread the practice of reporting, and what’s the benefit of using a common standard?
Marco: If we really want to change our behavior as a global society in order to protect the Earth then sustainability reporting, transparency and disclosures will have to become mandatory for all companies and organizations. As I have said previously — there is no business on a dead planet
Bastian: We need mandatory sustainability reporting — across as many jurisdictions as possible and addressing as many themes as possible. The recent moves we are seeing in the EU offer encouragement that change is happening. We have come a long way through promoting voluntary disclosure, and different regions and nations will move at a different pace. However, we should not lose sight of the vision of mandatory, global sustainability standards that apply to all.
GRI says that it provides the Standards as a ‘free public good’. What does this actually mean and, given that standards development is a costly activity, how can GRI continue to update and deliver globally relevant sustainability standards?
Marco: GRI wants all organizations to have free access to the Standards so that there are no barriers to access — and therefore no barriers to embracing transparency. Last year, we created the Global Standards Fund to bring together a group of funders from governments, corporates, foundations and individuals who are passionate about supporting the Standards.
If you think of the multiplication effect of a sustainability standard, the impact of the investment in updating it goes a long way. For example, we estimate that updating the GRI Biodiversity Standard will cost 350,000 Euro. On the one hand, a local conservation project might be able to safeguard a few hectares of rainforest, for a limited time, with these funds. Yet an improved Biodiversity Standard, freely available to all, can help improve the practices of thousands of companies around the world.
Finally, what is your personal motivation for working for GRI and in the field of sustainability reporting? What was your career journey to get to this point?
Bastian: I joined GRI 15 years ago because I believe that sustainability reporting, and the dialogue and action that it enables, is essential if we are move away from environmentally harmful business models. Reporting is a key tool in the transition. Therefore, in 2021, the GRI Standards are more important than ever before.
Marco: I have worked in sustainable development around the world for 25 years, starting out with managing socio-environmental community projects in Brazil. From these early beginnings, I realized that we can only protect this Earth by working together. If businesses change their behavior and take responsibility for their impacts, they can become truly sustainable. The GRI Standards provide a clear pathway for companies to do just that.