RI interview: Teresa Fogelberg, GRI Deputy CEO: Rio+20 report or explain on corporate sustainability

GRI believes its proposal could be adopted in Brazil.

The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) has submitted a proposal to the Rio+20 conference in June, calling for all UN member states to adopt a ‘report-or-explain’ sustainability reporting policy for all listed and large companies. GRI’s deputy chief executive Teresa Fogelberg explains the proposal: “The Rio meeting has come at a crucial moment. It has never been so obvious that corporate reporting is a crucial element in corporate social responsibility. Research conducted by KPMG shows that 95% of all Fortune Global 250 companies now provide information on their sustainability policies and between 65% and 70% of the largest 100 companies in 34 countries are taking similar steps. This has prompted KPMG to describe sustainability reporting as ‘de facto mandatory’.” But GRI is aware that there is still much to be done: “There are 81,000 multinational corporations in the world and about 6,000 have developed sustainability reporting – fewer than 10%. The question is, where are all but the biggest on this? We can’t sit and wait. We need to formulate policy and governments need to step in,” Fogelberg argues. She recalls that in 1992 the first Rio meeting saw the birth of the big UN conventions on issues like climate change: “It led to intergovernmental conventions, which means that there have been 20 years of obligations on governments. In Johannesburg 10 years ago, the issue was what the private sector could do. There was a general premise that business needed to act. Now, 10 years on, it’s time to strengthen this.” GRI’s Rio+20 proposal was submitted last November and first discussed at a preparatory meeting for the conference in December. A second round of negotiations took place in New York in March and more discussions are due to be held in April/ May before the conference agenda is finalised. In the run up to Rio+20, there has been a lot of frustration at the lack of concrete proposals, Fogelberg says. The global framework on corporate sustainability reporting is one of a few specific measures being pushed, which mayaccount for the support that it is gathering. The GRI proposal for Rio will affect both listed and public companies. ”It builds on agreed standards within GRI,” Fogelberg explains. “We have developed the global framework based on the report-or-explain principle, and the reason it is so effective is because of its flexibility. Companies can report their sustainability performance, or they can choose to explain why not. But boards of companies don’t want to be seen to be doing nothing.” She notes that the principle is already being put into practice – for example in Denmark. If the GRI policy is discussed at the Rio gathering, the formal text has to be endorsed by the 185 member states of the United Nations. Fogelberg is optimistic that the proposal will be approved. “When it was tabled in January there were strong signs that it would be endorsed. Government officials realise that if heads of state go to Rio, they want to come home with something. Also, it is attractive to developing country governments because it can help to hold multinational companies to account.” To gather support for the Rio report or explain proposal, GRI has joined forces with other groups. It is part of a coalition led by Aviva Investors that has brought together about 25 companies in the investor community, along with NGOs. It is also a member of the Green Economy Coalition, a group of NGOs, research institutes, UN organisations, businesses and trade unions that has come together specifically to prepare for Rio+20. Governments are on board, too. “We did not lobby to be in the Rio document, but governments said we should be,” Fogelberg explains. “The summit is about sustainability, and we happen to be the only global framework that has developed sustainability reporting guidance. Other reporting initiatives that deal with sustainability tend to be sector or issue specific. We are the only reporting initiative that brings together all aspects of sustainability – we have grown into that role.”
Adrienne Margolis is founder and editor of Lawyers 4 Better Business: Link
Lawyers for Better Business (L4BB) is an online publication and network to enable lawyers to become champions of corporate responsibility.