Demystifying the alphabet soup of reporting frameworks

Jul 09, 2018
Highlights from debate between heads of SASB, GRI, CDSB and the IIRC at the Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Business Summit

No matter how involved you are with corporate reporting, this playing field of long titles and numerous abbreviations can be unsettling. If you’ve ever felt dizzy trying to grasp how GRI, SASB, IIRC, CDSB and many other reporting frameworks are all used, or how they relate to one another, you’ve come to the right place.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of moderating a discussion with the leaders of the above-mentioned major sustainability-reporting frameworks at Ethical Corporation’s annual Responsible Business Summit in New York.

The panelists faced the difficult task of demystifying the sustainability reporting landscape for the many practitioners that spend more time on reporting than ensuring progress on their sustainability work. Spoiler alert: the major reporting players agree they are in fact collaborating, not competing.

Before digging into the panel discussion highlights, here is a brief overview of each framework and its main purpose, based on the discussion.

Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), represented by chief executive Tim Mohin

GRI provides the most widely adopted standards for sustainability reporting. The GRI standards feature a modular, interrelated structure, and are designed to help organizations communicate about the impacts they have on the economy, environment and society. This provides stakeholders with information about an organization’s contributions – positive or negative – toward the goal of sustainable development.

The standards are continuously updated and expanded to ensure they reflect latest best practice. They are referenced in 125 government and capital market policies in 60 countries and regions worldwide. Soon to come is sector-specific guidance.

Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB), represented by managing director Simon Messenger

CDSB’s mission is to create the enabling conditions for material climate change and natural capital information to be integrated into mainstream reporting, which will enhance the efficient allocation of financial capital. The CDSB framework was designed to bring environmental information and business impacts into mainstream financial reporting.

CDSB applies commonly used principles from widely known accounting bodies such as the International Accounting Standards Board. Although CDSB does not have detailed standards with specific metrics, it brings together other frameworks, in that companies can use the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) or GRI standards, as well as information disclosed through CDP, and use them in their mainstream reporting using the CDSB structure.

SASB, represented by president Matthew Welch

SASB’s focus is on company reporting for one stakeholder: the investor. These industry-specific standards aim to solely include information that is financially material at the company level. They are thus concentrated on a small number of topics per industry and are highly quantitative, so that investors can easily generate data and assess performance across companies. In addition to external communication to investors, companies can use SASB’s standards internally by identifying financially material risks and opportunities related to sustainability issues, informing long-term strategy and improving operations.

International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), represented by CEO Richard Howitt

The IIRC has the other frameworks as members, and was formed in 2010 as a global convening point to drive a change in mainstream reporting to reflect the wider, multi-capital and forward-looking approach. The International Integrated Reporting Framework is entirely principles-based, and organizations that want to find metrics can do so from emerging frameworks and initiatives, reflecting the different capitals.

The IIRC believes the frameworks in the Corporate Reporting Dialogue (see below) are the most comprehensive and global in scope, and each of them has in return agreed that integrated reporting is the ‘umbrella’ and the IIRC the convenor. This does not mean ‘more reporting, but rather better reporting’, as Howitt put it.

The broad concept of integrated reporting is about consolidating different information into the same report, with the ultimate goal of enhancing communication with investors and articulating the long-term value-creation strategy for multiple stakeholders.

How reporting frameworks differ

One of the best ways to understand the fundamental differences between the reporting frameworks is to look at how each one defines ‘materiality’ for a business. GRI and SASB complement each other nicely on this front, Mohin pointed out. Materiality to GRI is outward-looking; it refers to ‘the impacts of the company on the world around it’. SASB’s materiality revolves around the impacts of sustainability topics on a company’s financial condition or operating performance, suggesting a more inward-looking approach. ‘They are converse, while complementary,’ said Mohin.

CDSB sees materiality from a bird’s-eye view, in that it considers equally how the organization impacts the environment and vice versa. The IIRC considers a matter to be material if it could substantively affect the organization’s ability to create value in the short, medium or long term.

What they share

While the distinguishing features of each framework can be easily pointed out, it’s important not to lose sight of the collective core mission, the glue that holds them together. The crux of any non-financial reporting framework is to encourage better corporate decision-making and long-term value creation through the use of transparency. This is exactly what each panelist was trying to accomplish, without ousting the others. In fact, it was clear from the conversation that they are all working together on this common goal.

Howitt emphasized the work of the Corporate Reporting Dialogue, an IIRC initiative that began four years ago by bringing these four organizations together, along with the International Financial Reporting Standards, the Financial Accounting Standards Board, the CDP and the International Organization for Standardization, as a response to market demands for better coherence and comparability between corporate reporting frameworks.

Since the dialogue’s launch, the members have published a landscape map and a statement of common principles of materiality, which establish commonality and guide companies toward the framework(s) that is (are) most material for their business. Even more encouraging is what the dialogue participants plan to release in the near future:

1) A common statement regarding the sustainable development goals and each framework

2) A joint report on how transparency leads to meaningful behavioral change within a company

3) A joint project to align all participant frameworks with each other and the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures over the next three years.

‘If the market does not see that we are working together and not competing, the Corporate Reporting Dialogue is going to be the biggest signal back that this alignment is indeed taking place,’ said Howitt.

Nevertheless, changing corporate reporting culture comes with its own set of challenges. Most companies are limited by the small amount of human capital dedicated to reporting, in contrast to the large volumes of information from multiple frameworks and standards that need to be synthesized.

‘It’s a burden ­– there’s no question, it’s laborious,’ said Mohin, having produced many reports for several different companies in his earlier career before joining GRI.

The four Cs of effective reporting

The real question then is whether there is a better way of doing things. ‘It’s interesting to note that there’s nothing in the GRI standards that says you have to do a lengthy voluminous report once a year. That’s just how this process has evolved,’ Mohin pointed out.

In his ideal future, Mohin hopes companies will start to follow what he calls ‘the four Cs of effective reporting’: concise, current, consistent and comparable. Reporting more frequently would mean the need for fewer indicators, hence concise and current, while consistency and comparability between standards are essential for investors to screen and engage with company information.

By the end of the discussion, there was an obvious shared sense of selflessness and pragmatism regarding sustainability reporting. When asked about which frameworks will be brought up in investor calls, Welch spoke for all: ‘Investors are asking about this information, but they may not be asking about it in a framework-specific way and, frankly, I would consider that a success. It’s not about which one they choose, but rather getting this information embedded in corporate decision-making, and made available to investors to understand how companies are managing these risks and opportunities for long-term value.’

Helle Bank Jorgensen is CEO of B.Accountability, president of Global Compact Network Canada and a member of HRH Prince of Wales’ A4S expert panel. This article first appeared on the Ethical Corporation website

Sign up to get stories direct to your inbox
logo-black logo-black
Loading