In May 2013 the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) issued its fourth generation of guidelines, known as “G4”. This represents the most significant update to the reporting framework since 2006. Here at UPS, we’ve just finished the 12th annual edition of our Sustainability Report using the new guidelines and we wanted to share some of the lessons that we’ve taken from the process. (Scroll down for full report)

The G4 guidelines are a welcome change for businesses that want to be sustainable and efficient. They mark a shift in emphasis, previously the framework supported a broad brush-stroke approach, where companies were expected to report on any area related to sustainability. That meant we would be reporting on everything from biodiversity to carbon emissions, even though some areas are clearly more relevant to our business than others. Now we are able to take a more focused approach, and look at areas that are specifically affected by our business.

Because we were one of the first businesses to adopt the framework, and publish a sustainability report at the GRI G4 “comprehensive” level (their most rigorous), we thought it would be worth sharing our experiences to help others looking to adhere to the guidelines.

Challenge 1: How to define materiality
The most important change in the G4 guidelines is moving the emphasis away from a broad agenda to those sustainability issues that are most “material” to your company (those issues that that matter most). This change makes it particularly important that your sustainability reporting approach fits in with the guidelines’ definition of materiality, which is something that reflects an organisation’s significant economic, environmental and social impacts and influence on stakeholder decision making and business success.

Solution: Consider historic reporting structures
G4 actually offers a lot of flexibility, and we found we were able maintain our existing definition and focus on our overall sustainability strategy. One of the primary ambitions of both UPS and the G4 guidelines is to incorporate sustainability into the heart of decision making. We were able to do this by using out existing definitions and focusing on the most relevant elements of the sustainability agenda.

Challenge 2: Translating the GRI’s framework for a company’s use
A question that we asked ourselves at the beginning of the 2013 materiality assessment was, could we apply G4’s definitions of what is material so that it would be understood by all of our stakeholders? It is important to make reporting as relevant as possible, so in our case we wanted to do this so that our definitions were as good a fit for UPS as they could be.

Solution: Mapping your own aspects on to G4’s
We approached the process of adhering to the sustainability issues by adding to, or subtracting from, G4’s definitions. This allowed us to work with our stakeholders to bring the greatest clarity to the process. It’s still important that the hard work of the sustainability audit isn’t wasted, so we produced a table to map our specific material aspects on to those provided by the GRI. We found that this process allowed us to take advantage of our stakeholders’ expertise, and keep them informed, whilst sill making sure we adhered to the G4 guidelines. This meant, that in the end we were able to produce a sustainability report that both adhered to G4 and reflected the situation within UPS.

Challenge 3: Making the information trustworthy
Sustainability is becoming an increasingly important issue for all companies. This is particularly true for a firm like UPS, who work in an area like logistics. When you are working within a part of the business landscape that people are increasingly focusing on, it is particularly important that you are transparent and are able to provide information that is trustworthy.

We found being transparent can be a challenge when you are so closely involved in the process, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the details. You need to make sure you have some way of getting the necessary perspective.

Solution: Work with trusted third parties
As well as adhering to the independent standards laid down by G4 we made sure we worked with names that were trusted across the industry at both ends of the process. We were helped in drawing up the definitions of what was regarded as material to our business by the sustainability specialists BSR. They helped us through the process, to ensure that our definitions could hold up to G4’s scrutiny. We also asked our auditors, Deloitte, to look at our results once we had completed the sustainability report. Because of their trusted status we were able to show the market that we accurately adhered to the sustainability standards demanded by the G4 guidelines, and show the rest of UPS that we were using the business’s trusted advisers. Because of the growth of the sustainability sector there are more firms than ever that can be engaged to help, to ensure that your sustainability reports will be trusted by the wide variety of stakeholders that are now taking an interest in sustainability.

At UPS we found that we were ultimately able to balance the requirements of the G4 guidelines, and the expectations of our other stakeholders, by following this advice. Check out the 12th annual edition of our Sustainability Report below to find out more.

UPS 2013 Corporate Sustainability Report

Peter Harris is UPS director of sustainability, EMEA.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie