‘With the most significant change since the GRI Standards launched in 2016, the revised Universal Standards set a new global benchmark for corporate transparency. Fully addressing gaps between the available disclosure frameworks and intergovernmental expectations for responsible business, including human rights reporting, they will enable more effective and comprehensive reporting than ever before.’
– Judy Kuszewski, Chair of GRI’s Independent Global Sustainability Standard’s Board
The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) have revised their Universal Standards to emphasize and require more transparency in reporting on human rights impacts and due diligence obligations. This is a significant update because all entities reporting in accordance with the GRI standards are required to report on the Universal Standards (now GRI 1, 2 and 3). Previously, human rights-related disclosures were addressed largely in the GRI 400 series on Social topics, on which an organization is required to report only if it determines those topics to be material. Under the revised Universal Standards, all companies reporting in accordance with the GRI Standards will need to be able to identify (and disclose) how they identify severe risks to the economy, environment and people—this now clearly includes impacts on human rights connected with their business, and what they are doing to address these risks.
This development is part of a multi-phase project to update the GRI’s human rights-related disclosures, and the emphasis on “double materiality” brings the GRI standards in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and emerging mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation (see our Previous Blogs here and here). For companies that already adhere to the UNGPs, these revisions may not present a significant new challenge in practice; however, for companies that have not to date sought to explicitly adhere to the UNGPs, this will present a new challenge in terms of meeting the revised GRI standards.
What are the GRI Standards?
The GRI is one of the leading voluntary ESG frameworks and standard setters, used by almost three-quarters of the 250 largest companies in the world and two-thirds of the 100 largest companies in 52 separate countries. GRI Standards provide global standards for substantiality reporting, allowing organizations to publicly report the impacts of their activities on the economy, environment and people, including impacts on human rights, in a structured way that is transparent to interested stakeholders including investors, policy makers, capital markets and civil society.
The GRI Standards are based on expectations for reasonable business conduct set out in intergovernmental instruments such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the OECD’s Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct, the International Labor Organization’s International Labor standards and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The GRI Standards are made up of three strands – Universal Standards, Sector Standards and Topic Standards (see a summary of the key changes to the GRI standards here; and an introduction to the GRI standards here).
Which GRI Standards have recently changed?
On 5 October 2021, the Universal Standards were revised and now set a new global benchmark for corporate transparency. The change will affect all companies that currently report in accordance with the GRI Standards, as all such companies are required to report on the Universal Standards. Key changes companies should be aware of include:
- ‘GRI 1: Foundation’ to replace ‘GRI 101:2016’.
- GRI 1: Foundation sets out the key concepts, requirements and principles that all organizations must comply with to report in accordance with, or with reference to, the GRI Standards.
- The purpose of the Standards is to enable organizations to report information on the impact they have on key areas such as the environment, the economy or people. In the GRI Standards, these are referred to as “material topics”.
- The GRI has adopted a definition of “human rights” in line with leading international standards. In the new update, the GRI defines “human rights” as “rights inherent to all human beings, which include, at a minimum, the rights set out in the United Nations (UN) International Bill of Human Rights and the principles concerning fundamental rights set out in the International Labour Organization (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.” Importantly, this new definition applies to all GRI standards that refer to human rights, including the Topic Standards that have not otherwise been updated. This new definition should give reporting entities more clarity as to the scope of the human rights that they must consider for purposes of strategy, impact assessment, reporting and more.
- ‘GRI 2: General Disclosures’ to replace ‘GRI 102:2016’.
- Impacts on human rights are now expressly included as a General Disclosure topic in the Universal Standards. Previously, human rights-related disclosures were addressed largely in the GRI 400 series on Social Topics, which a company is only required to report on if it determines that topic to be material. Including human rights disclosures in the Universal Standards will bring further reporting in this area, increasing expectations on companies to be transparent around how they manage and mitigate human rights risks, and enabling stakeholders such as investors and asset managers to better identify human rights risks in their portfolio companies.
- There are fewer general disclosures in the new Standards. Whilst the 2016 Standards included 56 general disclosures, with reporting comprised of either a ‘core’ or ‘comprehensive’ option, the new 2021 Standards only require data in relation to 30 disclosures, and the differentiation between ‘core’ and ‘comprehensive’ no longer exists.
- Disclosures in the following areas have been updated and/or consolidated: organization and its reporting practices, activities and workers, governance, strategy, policies (including human rights policies) and practices and stakeholder engagement.
- ‘GRI 3 Material Topics’ to replace ‘GRI 103:2016’.
- The revised Standards provide a more focused approach to determining material topics and include step-by-step guidance on how to determine material topics.
- The new Standards also include revised disclosures on how the organization determines, lists and manages each of its material topics.
- Human rights are now specifically highlighted in the definition of material topics, bringing greater focus and requiring greater due diligence as reporting entities determine whether human rights issues are material to their organisations.
On 5 October 2021, the GRI also published its first set of standards for the oil and gas industry. This Sector Standard applies to any organization involved in oil and gas exploration, development, extraction, storage, transportation or refinement. The Sector Standard will enable complete disclosure on the complex demands facing the sector, allowing companies to demonstrate accountability for their impacts and how they are transitioning to a low-carbon future.
When will the revised Standards come into force?
The revised Standards will be effective for reports or other materials published on or after 1 January 2023, although early adoption is encouraged.
What should companies do in light of these changes?
Companies should consider how their disclosure and reporting requirements will be affected by the revised Standards. In particular, companies that subscribe to the GRI and have not to date sought to explicitly adhere to the UNGPs should consider how they will meet these revised GRI standards. In addition to complying with the revised GRI standards, a proactive approach will enable companies to enhance their strategic decision-making and to strengthen their relationships with key stakeholders and other interested parties, who expect increasingly robust reporting, for example to help inform investment decisions and inform benchmarking against competitors.
More broadly, best-in-class companies are already applying the below strategies to not only produce robust GRI‑aligned disclosures, but to preserve and create value by appropriately managing ESG-related risks and opportunities, including with respect to human rights:
- Integrating ESG into corporate governance structures by clearly defining ESG-related roles and responsibilities of the board, senior management and dedicated ESG or sustainability committees;
- Adopting ESG-related policies, action plans and targets to ensure group-wide alignment on ESG initiatives and disclosing those policies, plans and targets to the public;
- Building ESG-related organizational capacities through stakeholder engagement initiatives, trainings and handbooks;
- Incorporating ESG factors into commercial contracts, due diligence processes and procurement practices;
- Benchmarking ESG governance, strategy, risk management and disclosures against peers and industry best practices;
- Analysing and responding to ESG-related regulatory and legislative developments, including with respect to mandatory ESG disclosures, ESG risk management requirements and “green claims”; and
- Assessing ESG-related disclosures in the context of increasing litigation risk, including potential claims under securities laws and consumer protection laws.