GRI Standards: What they are & how they work

The GRI Standards are modular sets of disclosures that were created to help organizations clearly state their impacts on the economy, environment and society. The GRI Standards are one of the most well-known sustainability reporting standards. Around 60% of all companies who are currently reporting on their sustainability efforts reference GRI in some form. These companies include Pepsi, Apple and Intel just to name a few.

The Standards are divided into two parts. There are Universal Standards that apply to all reports and Topic-Specific Standards that organizations carefully choose from. Different levels of reporting are available depending on how much information the company is willing to disclose. There is no obligation to reach a certain level but it is required to accurately state which level the company reported to.

The Universal Standards include contextual disclosures such as company size and location. They also require more complex information like the organization’s sustainability strategy and a description of how sustainable initiatives are driven. Companies are additionally asked to determine their material topics or issues that the company has a significant impact on. The topics are determined by taking a close look at the economic, environmental and societal impacts the company has on the world as well as topics that influence their stakeholders. 

Topic-Specific Standards are different for each company depending on their material topics and should only be chosen after the company determines what those topics are. There are over 30 Topic-Specific Standards categorized into 3 different groups: Economic, Environmental and Social.

“The bottom line is that businesses now actively compete for capital based on ESG performance and that competition needs to be open, fair and transparent.

That starts with public company disclosure and financial firm reporting and extends into or oversight of various fiduciaries and others. investors also need this information so they can protect their investments and drive capital toward meeting their goals of a sustainable economy.”

-Allison Herren Lee
Acting Chair of the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC)

In addition to the Standards, there is a set of resources created to help implement the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the report and sustainability strategy. These tools help companies connect their material topics to specific SDGs and give additional ideas for how companies can support them.

GRI Reporting gives organizations the flexibility to describe their approach and choose to report on the topics they have the greatest impact on. This creates a robust report but also requires a significant amount of internal strategy, brainstorming and data collection to be completed first. Take our assessment below to get a sample of the information needed to report and see how close you are to creating a report of your own.