Exclusive: GRI’s driving force talks transparency, data and the pandemic
Bastian Buck, who is in charge of GRI Standards, opens up to NZI about current sustainability reporting standard setting
Pension giants, asset owners, investment managers and regulators are gathering in Stockholm this week to discuss sustainability reporting standards and current regulatory frameworks.
Also present at the annual ICGN conference in the Swedish capital is Bastian Buck, who leads the team that develops the well-known Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Standards.
They are the most widely used sustainability reporting standards in the world, with around 10,000 companies across roughly 100 countries applying them in their reporting.
Buck, who is also the spokesperson for the Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB), caught up with Net Zero Investor to discuss current reporting standard setting across the ESG spectrum.
Here at ICGN, there is a lot of talk about mandatory reporting and transparency. What should be the next step for asset owners, managers and investors when it comes to sustainability standards and regulation?
With so much attention on the development of sustainability reporting standards, we need investors to contribute to the process and provide their views, to make sure new or updated standards meet their information needs. We also need the investment community to use their influence to press for companies to apply established and global standards and deliver comprehensive and comparable reporting on their impacts. That’s important if we are to raise the quality and relevance of disclosure, and address concerns about ‘cherry picking’ by companies on what they choose to report, which can lead to greenwashing.
One of the key takeaways from this event is that asset owners want to understand corporates’ sustainability efforts better. Data is key, so investors and managers increasingly demand more sophisticated data sets. Do you recognise that trend?
We have observed a long-term trend from investors of seeking access to more and better data on the sustainability impacts of businesses. That’s why we specifically include investors as one of our key constituency groups, which participate in GRI’s governance and standard setting activities. A strong example here is the extent to which investor expectations was a key driver behind our launch of GRI 207: Tax, the first global standard for tax transparency.
In the past year we have seen a number of MNEs, particularly big-tech, face shareholder resolutions calling for them to report with GRI 207. We can I think expect to see investors taking on a particularly prominent role in pressing companies to be transparent about their sustainability performance.
Clearly transparency is a hot topic at the moment but what is, would you say, the biggest challenge or hurdle at the moment?
The global attention on sustainability reporting has never been higher than it is today. This is because there is widespread recognition that getting to grips with the impacts of organizations – economic, social and environmental – is central to how as an international community we respond to the major challenges we face.
The rising attention, fuelled by demand from investors and other stakeholders for relevant and comparable sustainability data, has seen an expansion in disclosure initiatives or requirements. Two significant emerging ones being the European Sustainability Reporting Standards (ESRS), as part of the CSRD, and the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), launched by the IFRS Foundation.
This may get a bit technical now, but go on.
ISSB has a financial materiality focus for investors, while the ESRS adopts double materiality – both financial and impact materiality. GRI, meanwhile, offers the established and widely used standards for impact reporting. The aim is to ensure that all these initiatives can be complementary and co-exist. The challenge is to achieve alignment where contents overlap across standards, to minimize the reporting burden for companies and meet the needs of data users.
From a technical standard-setting standpoint, GRI has collaborated with both EFRAG (the body leading the development of the ESRS) and the ISSB, with the aim of achieving interoperability with the GRI Standards. For both reporters and users of sustainability information, this alignment will be important if we are to have clarity and consistency in terms of what and how companies will report on sustainability in future.
We are merely talking about what tomorrow’s standards should look like, and the reporting gaps that need to be filled, but let’s look back for a second, what progress has been made in recent years?
We have seen rapid developments in sustainability reporting in recent years. Gone are the days when it could be considered an optional extra. Research from KPMG published last October revealed that 97% of the world’s largest companies produce a sustainability report, with over three quarters using the GRI Standards. It’s also highly significant that the majority of the GRI Standards contents have been or are being embedded in legislation by the EU.
And what about the reliability of reporting?
Yes, that is another important development, measures to increase the reliability of reporting. New analysis from the International Federation of Accountants points to an upward trends in external auditing of ESG information. This research found 95% of large companies disclose ESG data, with 64% now obtaining some form of assurance. It also pointed out that GRI reports are assured more often than those produced using any other sustainability reporting framework.
And then there was Covid. Has the pandemic slowed down the focus on sustainability standards?
If anything, it sharpened minds on the need for collective solutions to global challenges. And it exposed the myth that societal impacts are somehow not relevant from a financial standpoint. The spotlight was firmly on the extent to which organizations demonstrated accountability for the health and well-being of their workforce. Suddenly there was increased demand for companies to consider and disclose much more about their sustainability impacts and risks. That in turn has intensified the continuing debate on what we need to know about the sustainability performance of companies.
During the pandemic, interest in the GRI Standards rapidly increased. Downloads by users rose 53% in 2021 – then by a further 45% in 2022, reaching almost one million downloads last year. That backdrop has seen GRI strengthen our commitment to invest in developing our standards at a quicker rate than ever before.
OK, thanks for that. Aything else you would like to say or share with our readers?
It will come as no surprise that achieving accountability for climate change impacts, and the need for stronger and more in-depth disclosure, is a growing focus area for many stakeholders. The COP27 outcome last year made it abundantly clear that multi-stakeholder partnerships, including the private sector, are a must if climate change mitigation and net zero goals are to be achieved. That reality puts a bigger ask on companies to sharpen their reporting!