Highlights from the 5th annual Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Conference

Highlights from the 5th annual Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Conference
June 1, 2016

With the theme "empowering sustainable decisions,” the fifth annual Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Conference in Amsterdam brought together market leaders from over 70 counties to discuss the next frontier of non-financial sustainability disclosure.

The three main areas of discussion around disclosure at the event were: non-financial regulatory disclosure trends, the digital transformation of non-financial data, and the Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB). Here's what you need to know.

Non-financial regulatory disclosure trends

The GRI, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), KPMG International, and the Centre for Corporate Governance in Africa released the fourth edition of the report Carrots & Sticks: Global trends in sustainability reporting regulation and policy at the GRI conference.

The publication reviews the reporting landscapes of 64 countries and territories, and identifies almost 400 regulations, guidelines, codes-of-conduct, frameworks, and other reporting instruments—both mandatory and voluntary.

This report paints one of the most comprehensive pictures of the global non-financial sustainability regulatory landscape. According to the report, the key drivers behind this regulatory growth—particularly in Europe, Asia Pacific, and Latin America—are the rise of comply or explain reporting and increasing activities by policy makers, financial market regulators, stock exchanges, and investors.

For more details about the research and to download the report, visit carrotsandsticks.net to access a searchable online database.

Non-financial regulatory disclosure trends in the EU

On Dec. 6, 2014 the EU Directive 2014/95/EU on disclosure of non-financial and diversity information went into action. The Directive aims at improving the transparency of certain large EU companies regarding non-financial information. The new disclosure requirements apply to large public-interest entities with more than 500 employees.

EU member states have had two years to transpose the EU Directive into local national laws. The Directive indicates member states may bring in a requirement that the information in the non-financial statement is "verified by an independent assurance service provider."

It is likely that member states may give companies the flexibility to choose whether they provide the non-financial statement within the management report contained within the annual report. For example, in the UK the requirements for the management report are included within the strategic report regulation or in a separate statement within the annual report.

For those already publishing a corporate responsibility or sustainability report, these reports are likely to already contain most of the information required under the new EU regulation.

However, some new content, such as anti-corruption and bribery, as well as "a description of the policies pursued by the undertaking in relation to those matters, including due diligence processes implemented," could impact a company's data governance strategy and drive companies to review internal controls around non-financial data. The Directive allows for an effective date of either the financial year starting on Jan. 1, 2017 or during the 2017 calendar year. It is expected that the first mandated company reports will be published in 2018.

Upcoming EU disclosure guidelines

The EU Commission recently closed a public consultation on non-financial reporting guidelines and received a total of 355 responses. The soon-to-be released guidelines will set out how large public-interest entities, such as listed companies and banks, should disclose social and environmental information. These guidelines are expected to assist companies in the reporting process, providing them with a methodology that will facilitate the disclosure of relevant, useful, and comparable non-financial information.

Speakers at the conference stated that they believe the guidelines will provide significant flexibility for companies to disclose relevant information, including reporting in a separate report. In addition, they may rely on international, European, or national guidelines and disclosure standards (e.g. the UN Global Compact, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, ISO 26000, CDP, and GRI etc.).

According to GRI, there are 42 countries in which the GRI standards are referenced in government or market instruments. The consultation closed on April 15, 2016, and the marketplace should expect to see the guidelines released in 2016.

U.S. development

In recent years, U.S. Congress has mandated new disclosure requirements that address specific public policy concerns to be enforced by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). For example:

  • Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act mandated that the SEC adopt rules regarding registrants’ use of conflict minerals originating in specified countries.
  • Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act directed the SEC to adopt rules regarding the disclosure of payments made by resource extraction issuers to foreign governments or the federal government for the purpose of the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals.
  • Section 1503 of the Dodd-Frank Act requires certain registrants to disclose information about health and safety violations at mining-related facilities.

The SEC recently recognized that some investors and other interest groups have expressed a desire for greater disclosure of a variety of public policy and sustainability matters, stating that these matters are of increasing significance to voting and investment decisions. The SEC voted on April 13, 2016 to publish a concept release discussing and seeking public comment on modernizing certain business and financial disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K.

Regulation S-K disclosure requirements serve as the foundation of the business and financial disclosure in registrants’ periodic reports to the SEC. In the report, the SEC is specifically seeking feedback on which, if any, sustainability and public policy disclosures are important to an understanding of a registrant’s business, financial condition, and whether there are other considerations that make these disclosures important to investment and voting decisions.

Among other environmental, social, and governance (ESG) topics, the SEC identified climate change, resource scarcity, corporate social responsibility, and corporate citizenship—areas in which a subset of investors desire new disclosure requirements.

The SEC is also seeking comment on the costs and benefits of the disclosure requirements for companies and investors. We can expect to hear more from the SEC on this topic throughout 2016.

The digital transformation of non-financial data

During the plenary panel on global leaders in innovation and technology, Michael Meehan, Chief Executive of GRI, stated that although printed sustainability reports and PDFs have been the cornerstone of non-financial disclosure for decades, this format needs to change as technology evolves. Michael stated that the future "era of corporate disclosure is going to be digital, responsible, and interactive."

He went on to say that by liberating the data from physical reports, sustainability information will be able to be used in new platforms and by a range of data users—ultimately enabling better business and policy decisions to lead us toward a more sustainable global economy.

To support the transformation of technology innovation for sustainability reports, GRI announced new partnerships with leading technology and innovation organizations: Climate-KIC, RobecoSAM, TCS, WikiRate, and Workiva. These partnerships will create the technical infrastructure for digital reporting by promoting the GRI XBRL taxonomy and a platform for filing digital reports and will help organizations and stakeholders to lead the next era of corporate disclosure.

Global Sustainability Standards Board update

The GSSB was established in 2014 as an independent operating entity under GRI. The board has the sole responsibility of setting globally accepted standards for sustainability reporting.

During the GSSB update panel, Eric Hespenheide, Chairman of the GSSB, stated that the GRI G4 Guidelines have evolved into a new set of modular, interrelated GRI standards. The new modular structure will enable individual standards to be updated independently, which will ensure that the standards remain consistent with authoritative intergovernmental instruments and developments in specific content areas. Keep up with the progress of the GRI standards here.

For more extensive conference updates and other news from the GRI, click here.

Liv Watson

About the author

Liv Watson the Director of New Markets at Workiva, with primary focus on monitoring and evaluating new market opportunities globally. She helped found the XBRL International and is one of the original developers for XBRL.