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Reporting sustainability data for action

From May 18-20, 2016, I joined the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Global Conference.  Here are my overall takeaways, highlights and concerns from this three-day event, focused on collaboration, the SDGs, big data and action for impact.

 

A celebration of collaboration

GRI’s Chair Christianne Wood opened the conference with powerful words to inspire collaboration. “There is no room for isolated interests, the multi-stakeholder nature is what makes GRI so strong.” She also shared her conviction that the process of reporting is more important that the report itself. It needs to inform decision-making for impact.

 

Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of NGO Uprose made it clear that front-line communities and other stakeholders need to be an integral part of decision-making. “We’re going to be in the room, whether you invite us or not.” Elizabeth Dahlin, Executive Director of Save the Children Sweden also made a passionate plea for collaborative action. “We can move the world if we work together on clear goals, in partnership with stakeholders.”

 

SDGs as the guide to a better future

Lise Kingo, Executive Director of the United Nations Global Compact, framed the SDGs as enormous opportunities for business to be force for good. She also created a sense of joint urgency: “Delivering a better future is not just an option, it’s a necessity. There is no plan B.” She referenced the SDG Compass, a guide to support companies in aligning their strategies with the SDGs and in measuring and managing their contribution. This was created by UNGC, GRI and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). During the course of the three-day event, several other speakers positioned business (big and small) as instrumental for the outcome of the SDGs.

 

Yet, the SDGs are certainly not a quick fix to creating the future we want. Dante Pesce, Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights cautioned business to approach the SDGs first with a “do no harm” attitude to minimize and avoid negative impacts, before they start ticking off achievements. Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct, echoed this and cautioned that there is no compensation possible between an organization’s positive and negative impacts. Rodney Irvin, Managing Director, Financial Capital Focus Area at WBCSD, voiced his concerns. “Lack of SDG engagement by governments can make corporate leaders cynical. Also, capital markets are not rewarding corporate leadership on the SDGs, so it’s still up to individual leaders to act.”

 

Big data or action for impact

John ElkingtonA lot of the conference content was focused on digital liberation of sustainability data. As always, John Elkington, co-founder of Volans Ventures, inspired with a vision of the role of technology in driving transformation. GRI’s Chief Executive Officer, Michael Meehan, launched the Digital Reporting Alliance. Its purpose is to create the technical infrastructure to make XBRL-based sustainability information freely available on a public platform. This will hopefully accelerate the demand for digital by aligning leading users of this type of information.

 

Even though many applauded GRI’s latest technology initiative, there were many highlighting that data by itself will not create change. Paul Simpson, Chief Executive Officer at CDP, said “the value of data will be in the insights it creates.” John Elkington shared his point of view: “It’s all about storytelling and conversations; data will be an enabler of this.” And Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer at Aviva Investors, openly worried that we lack “both sufficient sustainability data and (board) intelligence to act on it.” Richard Barker, Professor of Accounting at the University of Oxford agreed: “We don’t want lots of data, we want the right data.”

 

And while many people focused on data, others brought the focus back to action and impact. Said Jan Willem Vosmeer, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager at Heineken: “The biggest risk is companies not taking action, it’s not just about the data.”

 

Yes, digital innovation provides great opportunities to make better use of sustainability information. At the same time, to empower sustainable decisions, the data requires focus, quality and context. What I would have liked more of at the 2016 GRI conference were in-depth discussions with experts on the main stage on topics like materiality for insight and focus; integration of financial and non-financial information to get mainstream investors engaged; and the way to get to more reporters and better reporting for the sustainability reporting movement to extend its contribution to that future we all want.

 

Want to find out more about GRI’s 2016 conference? Check out #GRI2016 on Twitter and have a look at my posts about the verdict on the S-word and the integration of sustainability in education.

 

Written by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis) for Change in Context. This is the first of a series of blog posts on the 2016 GRI Global Conference. To get the other #GRI2016 related posts straight to your inbox, please subscribe.