Death by 1,000 audits
With recent, and significant, revisions to ISO 9000 and EMAS adding to the increasing burden of environmental, health and safety, human rights and social legislation, the key difficulty, says Ai Associates' Ian Roberts - the first and only individual in the UK to have gained UKAS Accreditation as an EMAS Verifier - is in balancing all of the relevant aspects in an affordable and convincing manner.
The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Framework, underpinned by EMAS and other relevant specifications (such as ISO9000, BS8800, SA8000, BS7799, etc.) provides a basis for organisations to report and undergo a single credible verification.
GRI is based on balanced "triple-bottom-line" sustainability reporting, i.e. social, economic and environmental. The framework is not prescriptive, and report contents are determined by the organisation in open consultation with its stakeholders. GRI is convened by the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), author of the CERES Principles (formerly Valdez Principles) and incorporates the active participation of a wide range of corporations, NGOs, business associations, universities and other stakeholders from around the world.
The GRI Guidelines provide a "framework for reporting that promotes comparability between reporting organisations while recognising the practical considerations of collecting and presenting information across diverse reporting organisations". They comprise four parts - General Guidance, Reporting Principles and Practices, Report Content and Additional Resources - and are "intended to be applicable to any size and any type of organisation". Application of GRI is voluntary and the Guidelines accommodate incremental development as appropriate to the organisation and the needs of its stakeholders.
The principle of independent verification is promoted by GRI to "enhance the quality, usefulness and credibility of information used within the reporting organisation and the underlying management systems and processes".
Report content is classified under six headings, although it is not mandatory to structure the report in this way. They are:
A great deal of flexibility is incorporated into the Guidelines, as is evident in the approaches taken by various participants. Those whose stakeholders place high priority on particular issues are able to reflect this in their reports.
Since its inception in 1997, a number of organisations have taken up the initiative. Predictably, most early reports were produced by larger organisations. Encouragement and pressure to report has come from accountancy bodies, from the United Nations through its Environment Programme (UNEP), and from business organisations such as Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and Corporate Social Reporting Europe (CSR). Reporting back by companies to GRI is not compulsory, although feedback and active participation in development of the initiative is encouraged. However, details of participants can be accessed via GRI itself, the British Library, BSR, CSR and similar organisations world-wide.
Increasing numbers of smaller and medium-sized organisations are becoming involved, reflecting pressures from customers, investors and other stakeholders. In addition to the recognition of the added value of transparent company reporting, there is also a realisation that, if compulsion is to be avoided (such as the French requirement for companies with more than 300 employees to produce a Bilan Social) then a universally accepted framework is essential. GRI fulfils this role.
Connecting with customers
The framework also provides a means of connecting with customers and the public in a way that Management System Certificates alone are unable to do. A clear example is the United Nations Benchmarking initiative Engaging Stakeholders which analyses and compares corporate sustainability reports on a biennial basis.
EMAS is an ideal mechanism for satisfying the environmental elements of global reporting. This is increasingly appropriate as the newly revised regulation is open to all sectors of commercial activity, with a new logo and the ability to address reports to specific audiences.
As appropriate to the nature and scale of activities, GRI alone, and/or other selected specifications, can be used to satisfy the other reporting elements. Each report and the underlying systems and processes can be designed around stakeholder concerns and performance indicators determined by the organisation itself to reflect such concerns.
A single verification process provides a high degree of assurance for all aspects. In addition to the latest information technology, the planning and sampling techniques provide a high degree of confidence and assurance whilst eliminating duplication of effort, unnecessary cost and disruption. Resulting efficiencies are available to organisations of all sizes and are manifest in lower overall verification costs, reduced number of visits and the ability to report in a balanced manner at a level commensurate with the actual risks involved.