November Insight – GRI’s Sustainability Standards latest update

For this November Insight, we spoke to Bastian Buck, GRI’s Chief of Standards, with the purpose to discover the latest update of GRI Standards, in particular Water & Effluents and Occupational Health and Safety Standards.

Eurosif: GRI constantly scans sustainability challenges to highlight risks and opportunities for companies and investors. Its work on the Standards update is just about that. Its latest work focused on persisting degradation of environmental resources and failure to provide safe and healthy working environments globally have put water and OHS high on the global agenda. In view of the SDGs, how have you gone by preparing your work?

BBThe Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be seen as the world’s common agenda for a more equal, inclusive and prosperous world. Both topics – access to clean water and ensuring the health and safety of workers, are essential if we are to achieve those goals.
As part of the preparatory work for updating the Water & Effluents and OHS related standards, GRI mapped out the relevant SDGs and targets for each of these topics, and conducted scoping interviews with experts and stakeholders to understand key trends and challenges in light of the SDGs. We also researched current reporting practice by reviewing a sample of sustainability reports, and did a thorough review on relevant references and bibliography.
One of the major benefits of the GRI Standards is the multi-stakeholder input received during their development. The GRI Standards are issued by the Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB), GRI’s independent standard-setting body, following its Due Process Protocol. Both the Water & Effluents and OHS-related standards were developed through a transparent and inclusive process and in the public interest. The working groups involved in developing the standards consisted of experts from civil society, investors, labor, business and international and governmental institutions. Furthermore, we received nearly 1,400 comments from stakeholders on the exposure drafts. This is a great manifestation of the scale of the network taking part in the development of the standards and the importance these experts place on it. 

Eurosif: What have you noticed in terms of evolution since the last assessment you have run on these topics?

BB: These are complex and increasingly urgent topics, with interdependencies and changing circumstances due to globalization, climate change, and fractured value chains, for example. There is a need for credible and actionable information about organizations’ impacts on society and the environment, and sustainability reporting must reflect the changes in how we understand problems and how we think about solutions.
With updating the standards, we wanted to bring them up to the latest best practice and recent developments in water, effluents and OHS management and reporting. The standards reflect the urgency of the new ways of understanding and addressing issues such as harm to workers’ health, or freshwater as an increasingly scarce resource.
For example, the updated GRI 303: Water and Effluents 2018 standard has an emphasis on water stewardship, aimed at actively managing the impacts within the context of the watersheds companies are operating in. Thus, companies are urged to collect information and report on impacts beyond their immediate operations – from withdrawal to consumption and discharge, the associated impacts, and how they are addressed across the value chain. Supply chain impacts, for example, have so far been consistently underreported.
The updated GRI 403: Occupational Health and Safety standard puts the worker at the center. First, the definition of a “worker” goes beyond the traditional idea of employees on a payroll, offering a response to modern ways of working – such as the gig economy or the mobile workforce. Second, the standard places a greater emphasis on workers’ recovery from work-related injuries. This way we are creating distance from the measures that focus solely on lost work time, which have traditionally only measured the impact on the company rather than on the worker. The key emphasis of the standard is on the management approach and prevention of injuries and harm. And, finally, it also takes into account how companies address lifestyle-related choices, which increasingly affect workers’ overall health condition. An example would be voluntary health promotion programs that can help workers improve their diet or quit smoking. 

Eurosif: Have companies become proactive in their approach?

BB: Due to the strong emphasis on management approach and harm prevention in these standards, we expect to see more proactivity programs and actions from companies to reduce the impacts. We will monitor it closely over the next couple of years – including whether companies have become more proactive in their approach.

Eurosif: Reporting standards are high on the European Commission agenda and the challenges at stake are high to strike the right balance. What would you like to say to the Commission as it prepares for this important piece of work?

BBAsset owners and managers are keen to ensure that policy measures are thought through and fit into a broader picture. The focus of the European Union on sustainable finance draws the attention of policy makers worldwide – it is a chance for Europe to provide a blueprint for others to build on and adapt. It is therefore essential to avoid overburdening corporate reporters as well as investors.
We commend the European Commission on being bold and ambitious: an economic reality where growth is achieved through harming the natural environment and society needs to be phased out sooner rather than later. As GRI, we are committed to enabling the mainstreaming of sustainable finance through providing the state-of-the-art sustainability reporting standards.

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