Welcome to the USA, GRI!

The TakeAway: The Global Reporting Initiative, with the support of the global Big Four audit firms, launches “Focal Point USA”.

Good news for sustainability in the US!  Today, the Amsterdam-based Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) announced that it’s opening an office in New York City to launch “Focal Point USA.”  The immediate goal:  increase the level, frequency, quality, and consistency of US corporate sustainability reporting, while pushing it further into mainstream accountability practices.

In a powerful signal of the perceived market legitimacy of this effort, each of the “Big Four” audit firms – Deloitte, Ernst & Young LLP, KPMG, and PwC US – agreed to underwrite GRI’s New York operation for the first two years; The Conference Board agreed to host the office pro-bono during the same time period, alongside its Center for Corporate Citizenship & Sustainability.

The move adds heft to the US reporting infrastructure, helps cultivate and identify best practices tailored to the US environment, and connects US organizations with the global GRI network.  Mike Wallace, who joined GRI last August, serves as Director, with hopes of adding more staff this first year.

Focal Point USA’s longer-term goal: help enact the two-fold vision outlined by GRI Chief Executive Ernst Ligteringen at GRI’s biannual conference last May:

  • By 2015, all large and medium-sized companies in OECD countries and fast-growing emerging economies should be required to report publicly on their ESG performance, or if they don’t, explain why; and
  • By 2020, a standard for integrated reporting should be defined, tested, and adopted, which blend ESG and financial reporting.  GRI has partnered with the Prince of Wales Accounting for Sustainability (A4S) and other organizations to establish the International Integrated Reporting Committee (IIRC).   The IIRC’s purpose: promote integrated reporting, and facilitate and coordinate collaboration between key institutions to develop an integrated reporting standard.

You could call it a homecoming of sorts: thirteen years ago here in Boston, GRI co-founders Bob Massie (publisher of the Murninghan Post) and Tellus Institute’s Allen White hatched the idea for a sustainability disclosure framework.  Incubated at Ceres and later helped by the UN’s Environmental Programme (UNEP), the GRI now leads this movement.  By the end of June 2010, more than 1,350 companies rely on the GRI framework and its multi-stakeholder approach, which comprises the range of environmental, social, governance, and economic issues.  Worldwide, the GRI network includes 20,000 stakeholders from over 80 countries, representing corporations, governments, non-governmental organizations, consultancies, accountancy organizations, business associations, rating organizations, universities, and research institutes.

GRI’s arrival can help reverse the US’s disappointing track record on sustainability.  It’s also exquisitely well-timed, as concerns about economic confidence, the role of money in politics, continued unemployment, the impact of regulatory reform, and ethics and transparency in business are higher than ever.  Meanwhile, a recent Boston College study shows the US public increasingly appreciates socially responsible corporate citizenship, governance, and workplace practices—areas covered by the GRI framework.  A comprehensive GRI report bundles these with other performance indicators, such as energy and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and social performance indicators on gender, community impact, and human rights.  Plus, the GRI framework now applies to nonprofit organizations, too, through its NGO Sector Supplement.

As for geography, the GRI uses the term “Focal Point” to describe its engagement with different regions.  Since 2007, GRI has established Focal Points in Brazil, Australia, China, and India, usually with external funding from a number of sources.  “We’re delighted to be launching a Focal Point in the United States, which will increase our engagement with US companies and their stakeholders,” said GRI chief executive Ernst Ligteringen.  In addition to increasing the number of domestic GRI reporters and “working more closely with US companies and organizations,” Ligteringen continued, “we will be able to learn from their expertise and opinions, which will assist in the continuous process of refining our reporting framework for the benefit of organizations worldwide.”

Yesterday, Mike Wallace told the Murninghan Post that this is a natural extension of heightened US interest since he’s been with GRI.  “I kept coming back from Amsterdam to the US for meetings with the SEC around greenhouse gas emissions, as well as with companies, shareholders, pension plans, advocacy groups, and the like.  Many US businesses are trying to figure out what to do, while momentum for ESG disclosure continues to grown.  So now we’re here!”

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