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GRI Framework: What Is It & Why Is It Important?


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Preparing your Environment Social and Governance (ESG) report is not a simple undertaking. The data gathering alone is complex and time consuming, but knowing where to start can be the biggest hurdle for many corporations.

When it comes to sustainability reporting, there are a number of different frameworks and standards to choose from. The topics they cover vary, but there is significant overlap with each striving to provide a transparent picture of a business’s outward impacts.

Many corporations may already be familiar with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines and standards. GRI provides a framework to support environmental, economic and social reporting, and is a common starting point for businesses launching a new ESG program.

What is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Framework?

GRI is probably the most well-recognized sustainability reporting standard. As many as 73% of the world’s 250 largest companies complete their annual sustainability reports in accordance with GRI.

The program was founded in 1997, with the first guidelines released in 2000. The GRI reporting framework and supporting materials have been revised and updated on an ongoing basis for the last 20+ years. 

One of GRI’s missions is to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015. Goal 12.6 aims for transparency in business, and GRI provides a framework for businesses to report on their economic, environmental, and social impacts.

GRI’s popularity stems in part from the fact that their standards are free and publicly available, making them accessible for corporations of any size.

What are the GRI Standards?

The GRI Sustainability Reporting standards are grouped into three categories. The most recent version is the 2023 standard, which is already available for early adopters. The categories are:

  • Universal: These are standards that apply to all reporting companies. They include general disclosures on organizational details, the entities included in reporting, the reporting period, frequency and contact point, and external assurances. The universal standards also include material disclosures about the reporting business’s operation. These are often sector specific, which lead to the next category of standards.
  • Sector Specific: There are four sectors for which GRI has developed standards to support material disclosures. These include basic materials and needs; industrial; transportation, infrastructure & tourism; and other services and light standards.
  • Topic Specific: The topic-specific standards dive deeper into economic, environmental and social impacts. Reporting companies will make disclosures on anti-corruption and marketing presence, materials and energy, human rights and diversity, among others. The level of detail reported for each topic will depend on the company’s operations.

Where Can You Find The GRI Standards?

The GRI Standards, including sector- and topic-specific standards, are free and available for download from the Global Reporting Initiative website.

How Do Organizations Use The GRI Standards?

The GRI reporting framework is flexible and customizable, with the topic- and sector-specific standards designed to facilitate reporting based on a company’s operations. Those who wish to complete a report that is fully compliant with all of the standards can register their report with GRI in order to meet the SDGs for transparency in business.

For companies who have not fully implemented an ESG program, there is also the option to prepare a partial report. For example, an organization looking to report its environmental impacts can use the universal and environmental topic-specific standards, while leaving out the economic and social standards. The environmental standards will help them better understand how to quantify carbon emission and waste generation, for example.

Are The GRI Standards the Only Sustainability Reporting Standards?

While the GRI framework is the most popular standard, it’s not the only one. In truth, the sheer number of available standards can feel like a veritable alphabet soup to decipher. Other sustainability standards include the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB).

Which standard is best for your organization will depend on your operations, industry, location and what existing reports and sustainability programs you already have in place. 

For more information on GRI and the other standards, check out our Introduction to ESG Reporting Frameworks.

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