The development and implementation of GRI Standards: practice and policy issues

by Carol A Adams, Abdullah M. Alhamood, Xinwu He, Jie Tian, Le Wang and Yi Wang

This chapter discusses the development of GRI Standards and reviews recent research on practice and policy issues concerning their implementation. Six themes emerged in research published between 2010 and 2021: applicability of GRI Standards; nature of adoption of GRI Standards by report preparers; materiality assessment in GRI reporting; the level of understanding of GRI Standards; the voluntary status of GRI Standards and the need for mandatory reporting; and the quality of assurance. Research suggests that GRI Standards enhance: the comparability of sustainability reporting; the amount of information available on matters of concern to stakeholders; the identification of material issues; and the context relevance of information. However, the voluntary nature of GRI Standards means that firms tend to strategically disclose sustainability information to manage corporate reputation, therefore some firms fail to be accountable for material negative impacts. Researchers call for making GRI Standards mandatory and increasing the scope and uptake of external assurance. The chapter highlights areas for further research.

This is the authors version of a book chapter to be published later this year. Citation: Adams, Carol A. ; Alhamood, Abdhullah ; He, Xinwu ; Tian, Jie ; Wang, Le ; Wang, Yi ; Forthcoming 2022. The development and implementation of GRI Standards: practice and policy issues, in Adams, C A (editor) Handbook of Accounting and Sustainability, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd

Introduction

During the past decades, corporate social disclosure has increasingly attracted public attention (Toppinen et al. 2012). More recently, in line with scientific concerns and the development of technology, a broader and more forward-looking approach has been introduced and the corporate social reports, environmental reports and health and safety reports have morphed into sustainability reports or web-based reports with key information included in the annual report.  There has been an increased focus on how to integrate sustainability into the business decision-making processes and this has attracted the interest of academia (Adams and Frost, 2008, Camilleri 2018,Aguinis & Glavas 2012). An initial focus of research in the field, in studies such as Adams (2002) and Milne & Patten (2002) continues, i.e to investigate the determinants and outcomes of sustainability reporting (Chen et al. 2015, Cubilla‐Montilla et al. 2019, De Klerk et al. 2015, Dienes et al. 2016, Fernandez-Feijoo et al. 2014, Font et al. 2016, Jizi et al. 2014, Gamerschlag et al. 2011, García‐Sánchez et al. 2020, Ghazali 2007, Michelon et al. 2015, Plumlee et al. 2015, Reverte 2009).

Following globalisation during the latter half of the last century, as western companies set up operations in less regulated countries, there was an increasing demand to measure firms’ impact on economies, society and the environment. GRI was established in 1997 by the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), the Tellus Institute and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)[1]. Since their development, initially as guidelines, GRI Standards have been the most comprehensive and widely used framework with over 10,000 users world-wide (Galani et al. 2012, O’Brien & Dhanarajan 2016, Siew 2015, KPMG 2020). A significant volume of research has used GRI Standards to develop an index for assessing the quality of sustainability reports (Benlemlih et al. 2016, Clarkson et al. 2013, Clarkson et al. 2008, Hummel & Schlick 2016, Plumlee et al. 2015). 

This chapter provides an up-to-date review of the literature on GRI reporting. Recent literature (published during the period from 2010 to April 2021) was identified by searching for GRI and Global Reporting Initiative in the Scopus database. Six themes were identified: applicability of GRI Standards; nature of adoption of GRI Standards by report preparers; materiality assessment in GRI reporting; the level of understanding of GRI Standards; the voluntary status of GRI Standards and the need for mandatory reporting; and, the quality of assurance. The chapter also provides suggestions to inform further development of GRI Standards. It informs the ongoing debate regarding whether sustainability reporting Standards should be country-/sector-specific, whether a specific reporting format should be prescribed, how the concept of materiality can be developed, and how the credibility of sustainability reports can be enhanced. Finally, it identifies areas for further research.

The remainder of this chapter is structured as follows. Section 2 briefly introduces the development and context of GRI and the transition from GRI Guidelines to GRI Standards. In section 3, the approach to the literature review is discussed. Section 4 reviews the GRI-related studies during the past decade and identifies six themes. Finally, section 5 provides a conclusion.

Background information

GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) is the independent, international organisation that provides reporting standards for businesses and other organisations to help them be transparent and take responsibility for their impacts (GRI, 2021a). With a vision to build a sustainable future, GRI’s Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB) follows an independent, multi-stakeholder process to create a global common language for impact reporting. This enables informed dialogue and decision making around organisational impacts. The GRI Standards have become the world’s most widely used and comprehensive standards for sustainability reporting (GRI, 2021b; KPMG 2020).

GRI published the first version of GRI Guidelines in 2000. Updated guidelines (G2) were launched in 2002. The G3 Guidelines were published in 2006 and G4 in 2013. In 2016, with almost two decades of experience in developing guidelines, GRI became the first global standard setter for sustainability reporting with the publication of the GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards (GRI Standards). These standards were based on the G4 Guidelines and G4 Implementation Manual. The Standards were organized as a set of modular and interrelated standards and clearly distinguish requirements (using ‘shall’), recommendations (using ‘should’) and guidance. The Standards are principles-based setting out key concepts. Recent developments include: Guidance for corporate reporting on SDGs (2017); Sector Program (2019); Tax Standard (2019) and Waste Standard (2020) (GRI, 2021b).

The Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB) was established as an independent operating entity under the auspices of GRI and has sole responsibility for setting the GRI Standards. It works exclusively in the public interest. GSSB members represent a range of expertise and multi-stakeholder perspectives on sustainability reporting (GRI, 2021c). The governance structure was modelled on that of accounting standard setters with a view to facilitating the mandatory adoption of the Standards. This included the establishment of the Due Process Oversight Committee and Independent Appointments Committee[2]. The role of the Stakeholder Council also changed as it previously approved changes to guidelines[3].

The GSSB sets out a new work program every three years to keep the GRI Standards relevant and updated (GRI, 2021c). The GSSB work program consists of projects to review existing GRI Standards and develop new standards, ensuring the GRI Standards reflect global best practices for sustainability reporting and helping organisations meet emerging information demands from stakeholders and regulators (GRI, 2021e). In October 2021, GRI published the revised Universal Standards, representing the most significant update since GRI transitioned from providing guidance to setting standards in 2016 (GRI, 2021f). The 2021 update brought enhanced governance disclosures, stronger guidance on materiality to enhance consistency and comparability and an increased focus on human rights. 2021 also saw the announcement that GRI is co-constructing sustainability reporting standards for the European Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) with the European Financial Reporting Advisory Group (EFRAG). The CSRD will apply to approximately 50,000 companies.

There are three ‘Universal Standards’ that apply to all organisations. GRI 1 sets out the reporting principles that must be followed. The principles of accuracy, balance, clarity, comparability, completeness, timeliness and verifiability will be familiar to accountants. The principle of ‘sustainability context’ requires that the organization reports “information about its impacts in the wider context of sustainable development” (GRI, 2021g, p. 22). This involves: considering the ability of future generations to meet their needs; drawing on scientific consensus on the limitations of environmental resources; reporting in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and, considering societal expectations. GRI 2 sets out required disclosures about the entity, its activities, governance structure, strategy and policies with respect to sustainable development and approach to stakeholder engagement. GRI 3 sets out the process for determining and managing material topics – those where it has the most significant impacts on the economy, environment and people.

The GRI Sector Program will develop standards for 40 sectors, starting with those with the most significant environmental, social, and economic impacts (GRI, 2021d). The Sector Standards are developed to help identify a sector’s most significant impacts and stakeholder expectations for sustainability reporting (GRI, 2021d). They describe the sustainability context for a sector, outline material sustainability topics, and list disclosures relevant for the sector to report on. Oil and gas, coal, agriculture, aquaculture, and fishing are prioritised under the Sector Program (GRI, 2021d). In October 2021, the first Sector Standard – GRI 11: Oil and Gas Sector 2021 (GRI, 2021h) – was released and available for public use.

Research approach

We limited our search to the most recent literature, i.e. literature published in the period from January 2010 to April 2021 inclusive. The starting year of 2010 allows inclusion of research on the implementation of the G3 Guidelines launched in 2006. These were more comprehensive than previous versions and were followed by the G4 guidelines (launched 2013) and GRI Standards (published in 2016). The Scopus database was searched using “GRI” and Global Reporting Initiative. The search for the 12-year period produced over 1,300 articles. An initial review of each abstract was then performed by one author to eliminate the articles that were not concerned with practice or policy issues related to the implementation of GRI Standards. This initial review resulted in 141 articles. Each abstract was reviewed by at least one additional author and relevance confirmed. The key findings and the possible implications for GRI were then identified.

The 141 papers published between January 2010- April 2021, studies relating to GRI Standards mainly focus on six interrelated issues: (1) applicability of GRI Standards, (2) nature of adoption of GRI Standards by report preparers, (3) materiality assessment in GRI reporting, (4) the level of understanding of GRI Standards, (5) the voluntary nature of GRI Standards and the need for mandatory standards, and (6) the quality of assurance. Each article was classified under one or more of the six themes by one author and the classification of each checked by another author.

The six themes emerged from the literature are summarised in Table 1 together with a summary of key findings of a sample.

Table 1: Six themes addressed in the literature and illustrative articles

Six themes

This section discusses the research findings for each of the six themes.

Theme 1: Applicability of GRI Standards (Guidelines)

GRI Standards are the most widely used globally, with around two-thirds of N100[4] and three-quarters of G250[5] using them (KPMG 2020). The adoption of the GRI Standards varies in different organisational contexts (Adams et al. 2014), namely at country, industry and firm levels.

– Country Level

Research found that early, voluntary GRI sustainability reporting, varied considerably across countries. Many factors contribute to country level differences, such as regulations (Boiral 2013), social and political pressures (Gamerschlag et al. 2011; Noronha et al. 2013) and cultural and economic context (see Adams, 2002; Sampong et al. 2018 for a summary of key influences). Prior studies explain country differences by applying voluntary disclosure theory (Marimon et al. 2012), legitimacy theory and institutional theory (Fernandez-Feijoo et al. 2014). Legendre and Coderre (2013) found that in the stakeholder-oriented culture of some European countries, firms are considered social members of society and are expected to serve the needs of stakeholders and are more likely to issue GRI sustainability reports.   The differing sustainability reporting adoption rates and reporting patterns across countries have led to calls to make sustainability reporting mandatory and/or harmonise reporting requirements (see theme 5).

Tauringana (2020) found limited take up of sustainability reporting in developing countries with few organisations uploading sustainability reports to the GRI database. This is likely due to limited resources and skills as well as a more limited global footprint of the organisations concerned. Indeed, Yadava and Sinha (2016) found that there is a lack of skills in reporting environmental and social performance in India. Another explanation put forward by Halkos and Nomikos (2021) is a lack of emphasis on sustainability reporting by national governments.

Dissanayake (2020) argued that there are huge economic, social, and environmental differences between developed and developing countries. For example, Adams (2017) identifies poverty and inequality as a major issue affecting corporate performance in South Africa and which they also impact. One way to address this would be to identify performance indicators most relevant to developing countries.

This research highlighting the difference in relevance of performance indicators across countries and geographic regions underscores an issue with the current calls for ‘harmonisation’ of sustainability reporting (see Adams and Abhayawansa, 2021). Some researchers have proposed reducing the number of performance indicators in GRI Standards to make them easier to apply across countries (see, for example, Kumar et al. 2018, Noronha et al. 2013) but this risks omitting matters that are material to companies and their stakeholders in some jurisdictions.

GRI’s governing bodies and its Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB) are required to have representation from a range of geographic areas and stakeholder groups and geographical input is also broadened through multi-stakeholder Technical Committees and Working Groups[6]. Nevertheless, research indicates that there are challenges in developing standards relevant to all jurisdictions.

– Sector Level

Firms operating in different industries are under different pressures from various stakeholder groups and different risks affecting their behaviours in sustainability reporting and adoption of GRI Standards (Fernandez-Feijoo et al. 2014, Font et al. 2016, Legendre & Coderre 2013). Fernandez- Feijoo et al. (2014) and Font et al. (2016) suggest that firms in a specific industry should address sustainability issues that are relevant and important for the industry. Firms operating in industries with high political risk, consumer visibility and intense competition tend to experience greater pressure from stakeholders. The occurrence of certain high-profile events exacerbates these pressures. An incident in one company in an industry can lead to other firms in that industry using sustainability reporting to manage their public image (see Patten 1992). In addition, industries that have more risks in social and environmental fields tend to have more pressures from stakeholders, so they are more likely to be sensitive to sustainability issues, engage in sustainability activities, and have a higher level of compliance with GRI Standards to avoid stakeholders’ scepticism (Toppinen & Korhonen-Kurki 2013).

Some industries are lagging in sustainability reporting, such as the construction industry (Tsai & Chang 2012), electricity industry, retail industry, food industry (Roca & Searcy 2012) and cruise industry (Font et al. 2016). Roca and Searcy (2012) called for the benchmarking of sustainability reporting for firms operating in the same industry. To address these issues, the GRI’s Global Sustainability Standards Board is currently developing Sector Standards[7]. These sector Standards will be helpful in facilitating acceptable norms of sustainability behaviour in a specific industry (del Mar Alonso‐Almeida et al. 2014).

– Firm Level

In addition to country and industry influences, individual firm characteristics also affect the adoption of GRI Standards (formerly Guidelines) (Adams 2002, Dienes et al. 2016, Hourneaux et al. 2014, Legendre & Coderre 2013, Thorne et al. 2014). For instance, market-oriented large firms with high media visibility are more likely to disclose sustainability information due to external pressures and agency problems (Adams 2002, Dienes et al. 2016, Galani et al. 2012, Legendre & Coderre 2013). Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) lag in GRI reporting, and there is a case for the development of guidelines for SMEs (Fifka & Drabble, 2012). Sampong et al. (2018) also found that small and medium-sized firms are less willing to engage in sustainability activities, disclose sustainability information and adopt GRI Guidelines. While sustainability engagement and disclosure can benefit business in the long term there is a cost in the short term that small and medium firms have difficulties absorbing.

To sum up, factors such as politics, economics, society, technology, and culture in different nations, some industry features, firm characteristics and the voluntary nature of GRI Standards are a challenge. The development of Sector Standards will enhance the contextual relevance of sustainability reporting.

Theme 2: Nature of adoption of GRI Standards by report preparers

The principles-based approach to defining report content (stakeholder inclusiveness, sustainability context, materiality and completeness) leads to different indicator and dimension disclosures (Moneva et al. 2006, Hussain et al. 2018b). Studies have examined the prevalence of reporting across different categories of indicators. Roca and Searcy (2012) and Chiarini (2017) found differences in coverage across social, environmental and economic indicators. Tsalis et al. (2018) evaluated occupational health and safety disclosures in sustainability reporting and found that most companies provide information about injury rates, accidents in the workplace or work-related fatalities, and staff training. However, disclosure of some other topics is limited. This includes: agreements with trade unions (Tsalis et al. 2018); commitments to human and labour rights, the mechanisms implemented to prevent violations, operations and repairing the adverse effects caused by incidents, and claims derived from commercial relationships and systems (Cubilla‐Montilla et al. 2019); and, gender wage differences, the material used and recycled material, and product responsibility (Gaudencio et al. 2020).

Selective compliance with GRI Standards is used by firms to avoid disclosing negative information and receiving criticism from stakeholders. Tactics include concealing information, misinforming stakeholders, misrepresenting findings in the scientific literature and embellishing corporate images (Adams 2004, Boiral 2016 Chiarini 2017, Lozano 2013   Talbot & Boiral 2018). Wells et al. (2021) compare the environmental disclosures of two luxury conglomerates, LVMH and Kering, and found that their information is selectively disclosed and unbalanced. Negative information is ignored and attributed to scope changes, which undermines the legitimacy of sustainability reporting (Wells et al. 2021). For example, when reporting the aspects of waste, LVMH designs graphs based on different basis across years, such as percentage of waste recovered (2007), changes in percentage of waste recovery (2008), percentage of waste recycled (2009), and makes it difficult to compare across different periods (Wells et al. 2021).

Prior studies also found a lack of linkage across required disclosures (on, for example, the reporting company’s activities, material sustainability topics, governance structure, business strategy and policies, and approach to stakeholder engagement) in sustainability reporting (Lozano & Huisingh 2011, Hussain et al. 2018b).

In sum, companies tend to be selective and approach sustainability reporting as a means to protect and improve corporate image and reputation (Cubilla‐Montilla et al. 2019, Tsalis et al. 2018). Consequently, the completeness, balance, and reliability of voluntary sustainability reporting that is not externally assured is questionable. Reporting on the impacts of organisations on sustainable development is paramount to avoiding greenwash.

Theme 3: Materiality assessment in GRI Reporting

In contrast to financial materiality which is organisation specific and focuses on investors’ concerns, materiality in sustainability reporting considers important issues for all stakeholders (Calabrese et al. 2015). Several factors have been found to influence materiality assessments including industry, GRI adoption, and stakeholder engagement (Torelli et al. 2020).

GRI Guidelines/Standards assist firms to identify material sustainability issues leading to better sustainability performance and improved quality of sustainability reporting (Calabrese et al. 2016, Chen et al. 2015, Font et al. 2016). Font et al. (2016) examined sustainability reports of cruise companies and found that without proper assessment of materiality, they tend to over-report immaterial issues and under report material issues thus failing to address stakeholders’ concerns and needs. The paper suggests that GRI Guidelines should be used as a base to identify material sustainability issues and help firms to better understand stakeholder needs. This allows firms to optimise the use of limited resources to align with stakeholder concerns. Calabrese et al. (2016) argue that GRI Guidelines are beneficial for SMEs in the identification of priority sustainability issues. Consequently, the adoption of GRI Guidelines helps firms to serve the needs of stakeholders more effectively. In return, firms are more likely to be rewarded in the financial market (Chen et al. 2015).

There are some concerns regarding the application of the materiality concept in GRI Standards (Adams et al. 2021). Studies find many firms do not disclose material sustainability issues. For instance, Machado et al. (2021) reviewed 140 GRI-based sustainability reports and found that, overall, the organisations fail to identify and disclose all material issues, which the authors argued may be due to different interpretations of GRI indicators and lack of rigour in the materiality assessment undertaken by companies.

Theme 4: The level of understanding of GRI Standards

The adoption of the GRI Guidelines was helpful to mitigate gaps and improve the overall quality of sustainability reporting (Alazzani & Wan-Hussin 2013; Chen et al. 2015; Toppinen & Korhonen-Kurki 2013). It is valuable to present firms’ sustainability performance, reveal their commitment to sustainability issues, and provide incremental information to enhance transparency (Alazzani & Wan-Hussin 2013; De Klerk et al. 2015; Fuente et al. 2017; Kaspereit & Lopatta 2016). However, the GRI Standards are not always applied in an appropriate manner.

The literature suggests that the implementation of GRI Standards is influenced by a number of factors specific to the organisation, such as firms’ ownership (Slacik & Greiling 2020), trading on capital market (Slacik & Greiling 2020, Hickman 2020), sustainability committee and performance (Kılıç et al. 2021, Karaman et al. 2020), CEO’s attitude (Usmani et al. 2020) and firms’ commitment to sustainability (Hussain et al. 2018a). Hickman (2020) compared the CSR disclosures of publicly traded firms and privately held firms and found that publicly traded firms tend to follow GRI Guidelines because they seek to communicate with dispersed shareholders and with more information asymmetry. Kılıç et al. (2021) found that the sustainability committee can help improve sustainability information disclosure and GRI adoption. Karaman et al. (2020) found a positive relationship between green logistics performance and the usage of GRI Guidelines. Usmani et al. (2020) interview preparers of sustainability reports and conclude that the CEO plays a crucial role in preparing sustainability information and making related strategies.

Garcia-Torea et al. (2020) highlight that guidance on how GRI principles are to be implemented would be helpful. For example, GRI provides examples of engagement mechanisms and tools for defining sustainability reporting content, but does not explain how to use those tools, which makes it difficult for firms to identify material aspects (Garcia-Torea et al. 2020). GRI’s Universal Standards as revised in 2021 include additional guidance on material topics[8].

Toppinen and Korhonen-Kurki (2013) point to ambiguity in definitions of GRI indicators in the now superseded GRI Guidelines.  Organisations tend to prioritise compliance with GRI indicators, rather than consider the substance of disclosing information to meet stakeholders’ expectations, resulting in incomplete and inefficient communication (Safari and Areeb 2020). Moreover, although G4 classified indicators in categories and subcategories, it does not demand a fixed format for sustainability reporting content (Garcia-Torea et al. 2020). This allows organisations to disclose information where they deem appropriate (annual report, sustainability report, other types of report on the internet) with the location of each indicator disclosed on the GRI content index[9]..  

Theme 5: The voluntary nature of GRI Standards and the need for mandatory reporting

The potential positive consequences of mandatory GRI reporting has been noted by many researchers in recent years (Grewal et al. 2019).  Miles (2011) argued that the GRI Guidelines enable firms to analyse how well they integrate sustainability issues into business operations, measure progress, and address stakeholder information demands. Further, governments need to recognise the benefits of sustainability reporting and encourage companies to operationalise their commitment to sustainable development (Miles, 2011).

Mandatory requirements can enhance the quality of reporting and benefit stakeholders. For example, mandatory sustainability reporting is a way to promote the use of environmental and social performance measures (Adams et al. 2014), reporting of specific sustainability indicators (Roca and Searcy 2012) and enhance credibility (Camilleri 2018). Furthermore, Christofi et al. (2012) suggest that enforcement of disclosure of sustainability indicators can avoid corporate mismanagement that results in economic, social and environmental consequences detrimental to stakeholders (and the reporting organisation). Khan et al. (2020) found that the mandatory regulations and GRI usage help to improve the quality of sustainability reporting in banks in Bangladesh.

Prior studies also point to theories that indicate the necessity of mandatory reporting. Legitimacy theory states that to be granted a “license to operate”, organisations are under the pressure to operate in an acceptable way by the society (Deegan 2002; Patten 1992) and to report on sustainability activities as a signal of their socially acceptable behaviour (Chen & Roberts 2010). For example, Haque and Jones (2020) found that biodiversity disclosure by European firms was symbolic and used to gain legitimacy. Yet, such disclosures are likely to be of interest to national governments and regional regulators. In addition, institutional theory and stakeholder theory indicate that responding to a wide variety of stakeholders’ needs may also benefit shareholders in the long run, such as through the increased employee and customer satisfaction (Jones 1995).

Many studies have suggested GRI should collaborate with governments, international organisations and academia to increase commitment to sustainability (Adams et al. 2014; Beckmann et al. 2014; del Mar Alonso‐Almeida et al. 2014). In fact, GRI established a Governmental Advisory Group in 2008, one of the purposes of which is to suggest ways of increasing sustainability reporting[10].

Theme 6: The quality of assurance

Various stakeholders demand independent assurance of sustainability reports (Moroney et al. 2012). According to KPMG (2020), assurance of sustainability reporting has now become standard practice for large and mid-cap companies worldwide, with 71% of the world’s 250 largest companies adopting the third-party assurance of sustainability data.  Less than half of firms use assurance services for GRI-based reporting (KPMG 2020) and sustainability assurance does not reduce stakeholders’ scepticism, suggesting assurance needs further improvement to increase its quality and guarantee the credibility of sustainability reporting. Absence of assurance diminishes the quality of sustainability reporting (Michelon et al. 2015) and makes the information less credible (Cho et al. 2012, Hodge et al. 2009, Prado‐Lorenzo et al. 2009). Badia et al. (2020) found that less than one-third of reports in Italian public utility firms had been submitted for external assurance.

Alazzani and Wan-Hussin (2013) suggest that assurance helps firms to improve their internal information and reporting system as well as sustainability performance. Einwiller and Carroll (2020) found that external assurance helps to increase the balance and transparency of sustainability reporting. Furthermore, Karaman et al. (2021) argued that external assurance can signal firms’ superior sustainability performance and firms that adopt GRI frameworks are more likely to seek external assurance. By applying GRI Guidelines to develop a reporting quality checklist, Moroney et al. (2012) found the environmental reporting quality is higher for assured companies than unassured ones, and that the quality is no different whether the assurance is done by an accountant or a consultant. Therefore, these scholars argue for an increase in assurance (Alazzani & Wan-Hussin 2013, Kaspereit & Lopatta 2016, Tschopp & Nastanski 2014, Tyson & Adams 2019). However, Boiral and Henir (2017) and Kaspereit and Lopatta (2016) found that assurance has no impact on stock price suggesting that it cannot enhance the quality and credibility of sustainability reporting among investors.

Barkemeyer et al. (2015) and Boiral and Henri (2017) argued that stakeholder scepticism about assured reports is due to the limited scope and the disclosures selected for assurance. The independence of auditors is another issue of concern to researchers. They are employed by firms to provide assurance services and corporate managers are involved in determining the assurance scope (Boiral & Henir 2017, Kaspereit & Lopatta 2016). Furthermore, since the GRI principles have not been incorporate in the primary assurance standards, auditors tend not to apply them instead adopting a procedural approach drawing on accounting practices, which is not sufficiently adapted to the assurance of sustainability information (Boiral et al. 2019).

Firms are hesitant to use third party assurance services due to the high cost (Kaspereit & Lopatta 2016). Safari and Areeb (2020) interviewed preparers of sustainability reporting and found that many organisations regard external assurance as a costly and non-value-added activity. Therefore, organisations, especially those at the early stage, are more likely to use alternative ways, such as internal audits and consultant assurors to ensure the reliability of sustainability disclosure (Safari & Areeb 2020).

Michelon et al. (2015) investigated overall GRI reporting practice in relation to disclosure quality, measured by the dimensions of content, type and managerial orientation. They argue that the use of assurance and reporting guidance does not provide higher quality information as these practices are symbolic actions to enhance the perceived accountability. In addition, there is limited evidence showing that GRI followers provide more balanced, comparable and precise information, so an assurance conclusion needs to be taken with caution (Boiral et al. 2019). Further, Mori Junior and Best (2017) point out that the incapacity of stakeholders to identify the different types of assurance procedures leads to an expectation–performance gap and influences the credibility of sustainability reports. Thus, assurance does not necessarily guarantee the quality and comparability of sustainability reports (Boiral & Henir 2017, Fernandez-Feijoo et al. 2014).

These contrasting results imply that more policy requirements regarding external assurance are needed (Badia et al. 2020, Boiral & Heras-Saizarbitoria 2020). For example, GRI could clarify the criteria to be prioritised by sustainability assurance providers and how these criteria should be applied (Boiral et al. 2019). The compatibility between sustainability reporting and assurance standards should be improved to encourage more substantial assurance, especially on issues currently overlooked by sustainability assurance providers, such as the sustainability context, reporting balance, and information comparability (Boiral et al. 2019). In addition, the expertise, knowledge, and process of assurance providers should be improved (Boiral & Heras-Saizarbitoria 2020). 

Conclusion

The literature reviewed in this chapter reveals shortfalls in the implementation of GRI Standards in practice. Studies suggest that GRI Standards should include additional indicators to reflect the specific country and industry context in which the firms are based. The latter will be addressed through the planned sector standards. Research has suggested that GRI Standards provide clear definitions of materiality and a detailed methodology to help firms to better identify and disclose material issues. However, the key issue in adoption is that compliance with GRI Standards is voluntary and firms tend to selectively disclose sustainability information which may manipulate stakeholders’ perception towards firms’ risk and performance and reduce the efficiency of GRI Standards. Research indicates that many firms are allocating insufficient resources to sustainability reporting and that their staff are still developing the required level of skills. To address this, GRI has established the GRI Academy[11].  GRI’s ongoing work to improve the quality of reporting includes the 2021 revision to the Universal Standards and issuing Standards Interpretations and sector supplements.  Critical to this goal is increased uptake of external assurance and assurance of internal processes – such as the process of determining material issues. To support this work GRI has recently established a Global Standards Fund[12].

GRI is the only Standards developer that sets out to increase accountability for an organisation’s impact on sustainable development. This is important for investors, national governments, customers, and other employees. Companies have found that this information is critical to maintaining their licence to operate – a critical issue for investors and other stakeholders alike. Further research will be needed to determine whether recent developments in standard-setting enhance disclosures, accountability, and attention to performance. Future research could also examine the quality and levels of such accountability in the wake of calls to simplify sustainability reporting and prioritise the perceived needs of investors. and creditors (Adams and Abhaywansa, 2021). 

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[1] See https://www.globalreporting.org/about-gri/mission-history/ accessed 6th July 2021.

[2] See https://globalreporting.org/standards/global-sustainability-standards-board/gssb-due-process/ (Accessed 3rd November, 2021).

[3] One of the authors (Adams) was a member of the GRI Stakeholder Council from 2013 to 2019 and Chair of the Stakeholder Council (a GRI governing body) during the last two years of this period.

[4] The N100 refers to a worldwide sample of 5,200 companies. It comprises the top 100 companies by revenue in each of the 52 countries and jurisdictions researched in this study.

[5] The G250 refers to the world’s 250 largest companies by revenue as defined in the Fortune 500 ranking of 2019.

[6] See https://globalreporting.org/media/mc0nylry/gssb-due-process-protocol-2018.pdf (Accessed 3 November 2022)

[7] See https://www.globalreporting.org/standards/sector-program/ (accessed 7th July 2021)

[8] See https://www.globalreporting.org/standards/standards-development/universal-standards/ (accessed 13 October 2021)

[9] See https://www.globalreporting.org/reporting-support/reporting-tools/content-index-tool/ (accessed 9 August 2021).

[10] See https://www.globalreporting.org/about-gri/governance/governmental-advisory-group/ (Accessed 9 August, 2021).

[11] See https://www.globalreporting.org/reporting-support/gri-academy/ (accessed 9th August 2021).

[12] See https://www.globalreporting.org/about-gri/how-we-are-funded/global-standards-fund/ (Accessed 9th August 2021).

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  1. Well researched and presented, and I look forward to the book and reading more of the related articles.

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