Exclusive interview: Michael Meehan, Chief Executive of GRI
Michael has been a Chief Executive, entrepreneur, and advisor in technology and sustainability for almost 20 years and has advised multinationals and governments globally, including the White House, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the California State Senate. Michael is currently Vice Chairman of the Board of the Natural Capital Coalition (NCC). Michael was voted one of the “Top CEOs to Follow” by BusinessWeek magazine and is the inventor of several clean technology patents. He has led several companies as CEO around the world, focused on the intersection of technology, sustainability, and innovation. He speaks to Blue & Green.
In 140 characters or less – what is GRI?
GRI is an international organization that helps businesses, governments and others understand, manage and communicate sustainability risks and impacts.
What was the driver for creating GRI – what gap did it fill?
GRI pioneered sustainability reporting in the late 1990’s. Before GRI, hardly any of the world’s businesses disclosed non-financial information on their sustainability performance. Now, thousands of organizations in over 90 countries use GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards (GRI Standards) to understand and communicate the impact of business on critical sustainability issues such as climate change, human rights, corruption and many others.
Who does it primarily serve?
Primarily business, government and investors – but GRI Standards are provided for free as a public good, so anyone can use them. GRI is an international, independent, not-for-profit organization that works in the public interest. Our mission is to empower decision makers everywhere, through GRI Standards and our multi-stakeholder network, to contribute to a more stable and sustainable economy and world. Among the thousands of GRI reporters all over the world, we have more than 600 core supporters across business, government, investor, labor and civil society organizations.
What difference does GRI want to make?
We want to foster better business and policy decisions using critical information that matters. We see a future where sustainability is integral to every organization’s decision making process. The sustainability reporting process allows organizations to take a holistic view of their business and operating environment so they can make better decisions based on information that counts. The transparency that comes from the reporting process helps build trust in corporations and governments – a key requirement for a stable and well-functioning global economy.
What are the barriers to making that difference?
Primarily market confusion around reporting standards, and how sustainability information is accessed and used in the market. GRI is the only major globally accepted sustainability standard but there are many specific uses of this information for various audiences. There are efforts to integrate sustainability information into financial disclosures, compliance, anti-corruption standards, and standards around human rights.
GRI is complementary to most of these specific standards – you can think of GRI as the “data engine” behind many of these standards, and when your organization flags a risk around a particular issue, you can “go deep” into the issue using one of these linked standards or frameworks. We link to over 140 of them. The challenge is that we in the reporting world don’t communicate this very well, so the market can sometimes feel some “reporting fatigue”. We are working with dozens of the largest and most innovative standards organizations in the world to help fix this.
The other barrier is how sustainability information is used. Traditionally, this has been in a sustainability report because that’s the only way organizations had to understand and communicate their commitment and risks around sustainability issues. We pioneered this effort decades ago and today thousands of companies around the world produce GRI sustainability reports.
But the world is changing: today there are many uses for that information and GRI wants to “liberate sustainability data from the report” – focusing on incorporating critical sustainability information to all sorts of solutions, technologies, services, and even other standards. We want to help the increasingly diverse range of users tap into the sustainability information they need, enabling them to use this information in new ways.
We are doing this by focusing on the reporting process (the real value in reporting, rather than the report itself) and bringing technology and big data solutions into the process. In this way, you can think of GRI Standards as the “architect of the world’s sustainability information” and we want everyone to be able to use this information. This is what we mean by “beyond reports” – a world where the information from the sustainability reporting process is used in a wide variety of outputs to help build better organizations, better policy, and better investment decisions.
Who’s helping you overcome those barriers?
Over the past few decades GRI has built a massive global network of companies, governments, and investors who share our vision of a more sustainable economy and world. These aren’t just “members” – they are integral to our governance and mission, and some are very involved. Within this global network, a group of 600 organizations work very closely with GRI (through our organization stakeholder program) and many of them sit on our governance bodies.
Our multi-stakeholder network consists of businesses, civil society organizations, sustainability practitioners, investors, labor groups and academics, all committed to making economies more inclusive and resilient. We have strategic partnerships with the UN Global Compact, the International Labour Organization, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and many other international organizations.
We also have groups of organizations focused on particular issues, addressing questions like “what will corporate reporting look like in ten years?”, or “what are the best ways to incorporate sustainability information into finance?”, or “how can technology be used to enable better decisions using sustainability data?” These are our Corporate Leadership Groups, and are a critical resource for GRI but also the world in answering some of these important questions.
Is global reporting fit-for-purpose for the sustainability challenges we face?
That is our goal, and we are constantly moving that target forward. Sustainability reporting is evolving and so are we at GRI. It’s clear that going forward, there will be many innovations that will lead to new ways of communicating sustainability performance, liberating data from large reports. Our Sustainability and Reporting 2025 project has uncovered a number of emerging trends in sustainability, including the need for new metrics and significantly shorter disclosure formats.
In response to this changing context, our independent standards-setting body, the Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB), recently announced plans to transition the GRI G4 Guidelines into a set of modular, multi-purpose GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards, which will be fit for the myriad of new developments on the horizon. The GSSB plans to issue the initial set of GRI Standards during the third quarter of 2016 which will be based on the GRI G4 Guidelines.
How can people – individuals and organizations – find out more about GRI
The best way to stay up-to-date on the latest GRI news, events and speaking engagements is to connect with us on social media. Follow us on Twitter @GRI_Secretariat, like us on Facebook or follow us on LinkedIn. You can also visit the GRI website, www.globalreporting.org. There are news articles and many videos that explain the work we do and our take on big picture challenges like climate change, human rights and corruption. Also, this week we will be leading a discussion at the COP 21 Climate Talks in Paris, about the critical role that sustainability reporting by non-state actors, such as businesses, can play in solving the climate challenge.
Finally, registration for our 5th Global Conference in Amsterdam May 18 – 20 is open. Join us and up to 1500 sustainability leaders from around the world as we share and build knowledge on best practices, innovations and trends that are empowering sustainable decisions and changing the world.