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The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) maintains a database that monitors the progress of environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting around the world and the number of sustainability reports disclosed in each country. The GRI also has an SDG Target 12.6 Tracker monitors the uptake of sustainability reporting around the world, which is an overall reflection of how companies are integrating sustainability considerations (environmental, social, economic and governance impacts) into business operations.
Together the UN Global Compact and GRI plan to work to further integrate their respective frameworks, facilitating and elevating the quality of corporate reporting aligned with both the UN Global Compact Ten Principles and the SDGs. Through collaboration with the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and others, the new partnership will also make it a priority to further increase the value of corporate disclosures to the financial community. See GRI tracker for more information.
The figure displays regional distribution of Global Reporting Initiative Sustainability Reports based on G4 Guidelines, which was launched in 2013. G4 are guidelines in which reporting organisations disclose their most critical impacts - be they positive or negative - on the environment, society and the economy. They are designed to be universally applicable to all organizations of all types and sectors, large and small, across the world. The G4 Guidelines have also been aligned with other global frameworks (UNGC, OECD MNE Guidelines, UNGP on B&HR). The figure shows that Asia and Europe account for about two thirds of G4 reporting, indicating that a large part of the recent growth stems from Europe and Asia, followed by the Americas.
The G4 Guidelines have been superseded by the GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards (GRI Standards), which was released on 19 October 2016. The GRI Standards will be required for all reports or other materials published on or after 1 July 2018 – the G4 Guidelines remain available until this date.
Based on research conducted jointly by KPMG International, GRI, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and The Centre for Corporate Governance in Africa (at the University of Stellenbosch Business School), the “Carrots and Sticks” website tracks sustainability reporting instruments issued by governments and capital market regulators around the world, including both mandatory and voluntary standards. As shown in the figure, there has been an increase in both voluntary and mandatory reporting instruments. While mandatory reporting instruments are still dominant (at 65 per cent in 2016), a significant share of the new standards are “comply or explain” instruments. These instruments give companies the option to explain why they are not complying.
In spite of high and rising levels of reporting over the past two decades, changes in behaviour have not been mainstreamed. This raises the question of how effective reporting is on its own. While more research is needed, the implication is that either i) the quality of reporting could be strengthened, either with regard to both the areas covered, or as to whether the material is presented in in a way that is easily understandable to investors and consumers or ii) reporting is an important first step, but on its own is not sufficient to change behaviour.
Comply and explain
Comply and explain rules require companies to either comply to a standard or explain why they have not been able to do so. Market initiatives, including activity from stock exchanges and market regulators, together comprise nearly one third of reporting instruments. The number focusing on social reporting nearly doubled since 2013 and has grown at a faster rate than those focusing on environmental reporting. The purpose of “comply or explain” is to “let the market decide” whether a set of standards is appropriate for individual companies. This approach rejects the view that “one size fits all”. Due to the requirement of disclosing explanations to market investors, there is the possibility that, if investors do not accept a company’s explanations, they may then sell its shares (hence providing a “market sanction” rather than a legal one). To date, the impact of greater reporting – be it mandatory or voluntary – on business behaviour in better aligning their activities with ESG criteria is unclear. For instance, studies need to be undertaken on the credibility of the information reported under the “comply or explain” framework.