Green Plus and GRI: A Comparison

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This is the second post in a series discussing how Green Plus fits into the overall sustainability landscape.  In this post, we’ll be focusing on an established and respected reporting framework, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).  Though we typically try to keep our posts short, there’s a lot to cover here.  For those seeking a quick overview, here are the key points of difference:

  • GRI provides a framework for reporting the metrics of sustainability reporting, whereas Green Plus is a certification that indicates a significant level of commitment to sustainability practice.
  • GRI is based on a multi-stakeholder process whereby key stakeholders are consulted to determine the most relevant sustainability indicators for an organization.  Green Plus is defined and prescriptive with regard to sustainability practices, although there is room for flexibility depending on the type of organization.
  • GRI is largely focused on human rights, labor issues and anti-corruption, as well as the environment; economic and social issues are a very large part of the required disclosures.  Since Green Plus is intended for smaller employers with 500 or fewer employees in North America, the main focus areas are economic, environmental and social practices; issues related to international trade are not included.
  • In 2010, over 1800 GRI reports were submitted, 10% of which were from the United States.  Roughly 88% of the reports came from large businesses while 12% came from small or medium sized enterprises, and 2% of the total reports came from nonprofits.
  • By contrast, since 2009, Green Plus has worked with over 200 small and medium sized employers (500 or fewer employees), more than 15% of which are nonprofits.  Green Plus organizations are largely from the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest and over 40 organizations have become Certified Green Plus to date.

Background of GRI

GRI was founded in the US in 1997 by CERES and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) as an independent organization and was originally based in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2002, GRI moved its central office to Amsterdam, where the Secretariat is currently located. GRI also has regional ‘Focal Points’ in Australia, Brazil, China, India and the USA.

The idea behind GRI is that, by having specific and standardized economic, environmental, and social indictors, businesses are more readily able to select widely-endorsed indicators that are relevant and material to them, begin benchmarking their performance in the key areas, become more transparent and (hopefully) improve upon their performance over time, all while building their internal systems for managing sustainability.

GRI Process

A critical concept for understanding and implementing GRI reporting is stakeholder engagement.  A stakeholder can be defined as any entity that has an impact on an organization or any entity on which an organization has an impact.  So, for example, stakeholders include investors, employees, the community, government bodies, customers and so on.  In order to determine which GRI indicators are relevant for a company’s report, a company should begin by engaging stakeholders (through focus groups, surveys and the like) to gather information about what issues related to environmental, social, and economic performance are important to these groups.  Once information is gathered, company leadership can begin prioritizing issues, as there are in excess of 100 possible indicators on which a company can report; the company then selects a subset of strategically important indicators.  This flexibility to choose indicators makes sense in light of different industries that use GRI, as the relevant indicators for a mining company will look very different from those for a services firm.

To reiterate, GRI is not a certification, but a process for reporting on sustainability and social responsibility.  If you’ve ever come across a company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or sustainability report, chances are good that the company used GRI reporting methods and indicators.  See the trends in GRI reporting by year, country and region here.

GRI Main Topic Areas

Sometimes it can be helpful to get an overview of the “buckets” of different sustainability-related programs.  For GRI, these buckets include a series of profiled disclosures (i.e. company information) in the areas of Strategy and Analysis, Organizational Profile, Report Parameters, and Governance, Commitments, and Engagement.  Beyond these profile disclosures, there are a wide range of performance indicators to choose from in the areas of Environmental, Human Rights, Labor Practices and Decent Work, Society, and Product Responsibility.  The full list of G3.1 (the most recent version) indicators can be accessed here.

Green Plus – GRI Differences

Green Plus is vastly different from GRI.  For starters, Green Plus has a standard set of sustainability indicators while GRI enables organizations to select which indicators to report on based on stakeholder feedback and strategic priority.  In addition, Green Plus is practice/activity-oriented (i.e. “Has your organization conducted a waste audit?”), whereas GRI is disclosure and metric-oriented (i.e. EN22 “Total weight of waste by type and disposal method”).  While Green Plus is very supportive of measurement, metrics require a level of sophistication that can be prohibitive for smaller employers.  As such, Green Plus seeks to introduce concepts, vocabulary and practices that enable smaller employers to get their footing in sustainability, with the hope that they will continue to formalize their approach and integrate sustainability into management and assessment of practices.  Finally, the GRI process, summarized as “stakeholder engagement – determining priorities and materiality – measurement – reporting – repeat” is substantially different from Green Plus, which is more along the lines of “assess current practices – get feedback – develop sustainability plan – implement sustainability plan – communicate efforts.”

Green Plus – GRI Similarities

In terms of similarities, where Green Plus and GRI overlap is in their underlying principles.  Both share principles of defining sustainability, energy and water efficiency, using minimal packaging, adhering to equal opportunity policies, providing benefits to workers, offering wellness programs, providing living wages, and purchasing locally.  However, Green Plus is not focused on stakeholder engagement, human rights, anti-corruption, emissions, or compliance issues, primarily because Green Plus is intended for smaller employers for whom international trade is not the norm.  Meanwhile, GRI focuses relatively little on local community engagement.

Who Should Use GRI?

GRI is optimal for businesses with significant human resource capacity and/or a reasonable level of sophistication in sustainability seeking to transparently report on company sustainability performance.  GRI also has an NGO Sector Supplement as well as a Supply Chain Program for small enterprise.  It is most ideal if a business is willing to embrace the full process of stakeholder engagement, internal discussion of key strategies and priorities, internal measurement of indicators and design to artfully present the findings.  Consulting with a GRI-certified individual and having one or more employees become GRI-certified themselves is also ideal, though not required.  Done well and completely, a GRI report can take a year to compile and realistically, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete.  For this reason, the majority of firms that use GRI are large corporations.  In 2010, 88% of GRI reporters were large corporations (the full list is available on the GRI website here).

Who Should Pursue Green Plus Certification?

Green Plus is optimal for smaller enterprises – businesses and nonprofits with 500 or fewer employees – seeking to learn about sustainability practices and work at their own pace to achieve them.  For smaller organizations that seek excellence and competitiveness, Green Plus can provide a roadmap for economic, environmental and social performance.  Getting ready for reporting can be a bit daunting for a small and medium-sized organization and Green Plus introduces concepts and practices that can serve as a stepping stone to future reporting efforts.  In fact, several Green Plus Certified organizations have begun quantifying and publicly reporting on key sustainability metrics.

Conclusion

Reporting is a valuable discipline for organizations to adopt.  Ongoing measurement unearths insights and trends that facilitate better decision making, cost savings and innovation.  Transparency and communication begins an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders that builds customer and employee loyalty and generates more optimal outcomes.  Having shared internal standards, metrics and definitions of sustainability builds a cultural ethic that yields energy, creativity and common purpose.  Moreover, there is much to be learned and gained from the GRI process.  Wherever your organization falls on the sustainability spectrum, it is certain to benefit from the practice of tracking of sustainability measures.  Want to see how the pros report?  See examples of past GRI reports here from Duke Energy and here from UPS.

(Editor’s Note: post updated 2:30pm EST on 4/11/2011 with several language changes and an updated “Background of GRI” section)

Photo by Nathan Yau, Available Under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

The Institute for Sustainable Development / Green Plus

www.gogreenplus.org

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