Federal efforts to require companies to report on environmental impacts and other sustainability measures in their financial filings have all but stalled, victims of the recession and a loss of momentum for federal climate policy.
But while official efforts have deflated, independent groups are ratcheting up the pressure. The case for greater transparency got a push today, with the announcement that the Amsterdam-based Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), is launching a U.S. effort to guide more American corporations to adapt GRI’s framework to disclose environmental, social and governance performance. Advocates make the case that increased transparency not only tends to boost profitability, but that such details are legally material to corporate financial statements.
Dubbed Focal Point USA, GRI’s US initiative debuted today at a breakfast meeting at NYSE Euronext on Wall Street. Pointing out that only hundreds of tens of thousands of US companies strive to document their broader impact, GRI Chief Executive Ernst Ligteringen asked the 230 attendees, “Why is America letting the world lead in sustainability reporting?”
Born of 1997 U.N. initiative, GRI has over the past decade evolved rules over addressing the needs of different sectors, from mining to media, and worked to win official endorsement of its guidelines from standards bodies such as the OECD and UN.
The value of sustainability practices as crucial to risk management echoed through comments made by a panel of executives whose companies presently follow GRI reporting guidelines. “What is the justification of the 75,000 corporations who don’t report on ESG [environmental, social and governance] issues to fly blind?” asked David Vidal, director, Center For Corporate Citizenship And Sustainability at The Conference Board.
At Avon, which relies on a sales force of 6.5 million independent resellers, GRI’s framework emerged a useful bridge, linking sustainability advocates among the company’s senior ranks, with financial executives. “GRI gives a formal framework that the bean counters can relate too, and get behind,” said Susan Arnot Heaney, Avon’s director of corporate responsibility.
Issues of sustainability resonate especially strongly with Avon’s nearly all-female sales force, Heaney emphasized, creating upward pressure on corporate managers. Avon has over one million direct sales representatives in Brazil alone, a group larger than the nation’s army, Heaney explained.
Simply standardizing sustainability data into more accessible standard forms has enhanced financial markets’ regard for the value of the information, said Curtis Ravenel, Director of Sustainability Initiatives, at Bloomberg LLP. The financial and news service recently has begun to include sustainability indicators alongside conventional financial analytics on one of the most widely viewed data screens in the Bloomberg terminal.
“As a private company Bloomberg didn’t have a culture of reporting or transparency,” said Ravenel. The media company plans to release its first GRI compliant report in 2011, following a three-year effort to compile the necessary data. The exercise helped convince management of the value of reporting on sustainability data internally, and via its terminals, Ravenel explained.
“This is a dynamic time for the Global Reporting Initiative, with sustainability reporting becoming a vital part of the business strategies of an increasing number of companies, including in the US,” said Mike Wallace, Director of the Global Reporting Initiative’s Focal Point USA.
The US launch follows similar announcements in China and India. Following the New York event, Focal Point USA is planning a breakfast meeting hosted by The World Bank in Washington, DC on February 3 and a roundtable event hosted by Ceres in Boston on February 4. For more information about these events and about GRI’s Focal Point USA, contact Mike Wallace or more information here.
NYSE photo CC-licensed by Francisco Diez.