The new GRI guidelines need to become universal and mandatory if they are to fulfill their mission.
by Bob Massie
Last week more than 1,600 people from around the world – including huge delegations from China and India – gathered in Amsterdam for the release of the new Global Reporting Initiative sustainability guidelines, known as the “G4.”
By any measure, the GRI has been an extraordinary success, growing from a small entity in the United States to the leading global standard for measuring sustainability performance in the world, in use by more than 3,000 global companies and organizations.
All Too Easy for Humanity to Overlook Moral Problems
With the release of the G4 guidelines, the time has come for sustainability reporting to move from a powerful but still partially applied voluntary effort to becoming universal and mandatory. This development may soon happen through the intervention of governments and stock exchanges around the world, which are setting the bar for the release of basic sustainability information.
Even as GRI moves forward with universal adoption, and with working with other important initiatives like the International Integrated Reporting Council, it should also consider how it will advance some pressing sustainability questions that have not yet received the full attention they deserve, particularly the question of social justice and global unemployment.
We all know that it can be easy for humanity to overlook major moral problems in its midst.
In the 18th century, my ancestors were farmers and lawyers in the hills of Virginia. They earned their money by plowing the land, harvesting the crops, and extracting value from their property. But they did not do this alone. Their property included human beings. My ancestors owned slaves.
It took America 250 years to accept as a nation that slavery was an injustice. Many young men with my last name died in the Civil War, defending the indefensible.
During this time, American slaves sang strong and painful songs about their bondage. They drew from the stories of other tyrants and tyrannies in the Bible. One of those spirituals went like this:
The only chain that man can stand
Is the chain of hand in hand
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
The older I get, the more I believe that our entire future – as individuals, as groups, and as a species – depends on what we learn to see. We are blind to many things, because we are busy, because we are tired, because we prefer not look at what disturbs us.
GRI: Overcoming Blindness?
The GRI, more than anything, has been about overcoming blindness.
We use fancy names like “transparency” and “materiality” – but they all mean the same thing: can we see what is important? We are now witnessing an explosion of openness and sight, and therefore, new thinking and new hope.
This does not mean that everyone is paying attention.
There is still much more to be done. Our financial markets remain broken, unable to distinguish between the creation of real value and the fictions of gambling. Our economic and financial models are still blind to some of the most basic realities on earth, from the impossibility of permanent exponential growth to the relentless scourge of climate change.
The participants in the G4 revision process brought new perspective and urgency to the challenges of sustainability and are to be commended for an extraordinary act of common creation. We should celebrate that achievement. We should also be honest about the challenges ahead.
For all the hard work and time that people have invested in this new tool, it is still easy for many of us to forget the faces of the hundreds of millions of men and women who are bound to the ground, to the plows, to the factories, or to the despairing streets.
"Unfreedoms": Extracting Value From the Human World
To build on recent successes, those committed to the GRI must push even harder to have the difficult conversations about justice and power. Fifteen years ago, the GRI spotlighted how markets hungry for short-term gains extracted value from the natural world, from natural capital, and dumped what they did not need back again. Now those committed to sustainability disclosure must spotlight how markets hungry for short-term gains extract value from the human world, from our social capital, and dump what they do not need back again.
We need to think about the role of capital markets and firms in the creation or reduction of what Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen refers to as the “unfreedoms,” the captivity that extracts value from people who have no alternatives.
The new step in the great journey of sustainability is to include those who have been excluded from prosperity. We must give greater voice and visibility to the people of the planet who have for too long been silent and invisible. We must take the steps toward the next economy, the new economy, the economy that reflects the best of our wisdom and our values.
Ending the Slavery of Social Exploitation
In a hundred years our great grandchildren will judge us, as I judge my ancestors, asking if we had the foresight to see what was in plain sight. They will ask whether we ended the slavery of exploitation, of poverty, of unemployment. They will ask whether we succeeded not just in creating things to consume us, but livelihoods to free us.
To do so, we now must seek more democracy and more freedom for more people – political democracy and economic democracy -- so that the needs of the many are not drowned by the greed of the few.
The new task – every bit as daunting as the earlier ones -- is to claim the full measure of sustainability, in which we provide not only for all of the planet but for all of its people. Our goal must be a world rooted in justice, a world in which we promote and protect what is beautiful and what is necessary, a world in which every face can be lifted from the plow to the sky and in which every heart can sing with the joy of life itself.
To those who have brought us this far, I say congratulations.
And to those who know we still have far to go, I add: keep your eyes on the prize -- and hold on.
About the Author:
Bob Massie was the co-founder and first chair of the Steering Committee of the Global Reporting Initiative. He is now the president of the New Economics Institute.