Elevating Sustainability Reporting to Common Practice: Close-Up with GRI's Judy Kuszewski

Sharing a history with GRI since its founding days, the new Chair of the GRI Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB) Judy Kuszewski shares her views on reporting then, now and tomorrow.
Mar 21, 2017 12:15 PM ET
We got a chance to ask the newly appointed Chair of GRI's Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB) Judy Kuszewski about GSSB’s future plans as well as the challenges facing corporate reporting today. 
You were involved in the founding of GRI 20 years ago. How do you see GRI’s evolution from its founding up to the present day? 
You’re right – my involvement with GRI goes back to the beginning, when I worked for Ceres, the Boston-based sustainable business coalition that co-founded the GRI in 1997. Under Bob Massie’s leadership, we set out to standardize sustainability reporting, and in the process to set the conditions for it to become as reliable and commonplace as financial reporting. In that respect, nothing has changed – GRI carries on implementing this very vision today.
On the other hand, I don’t think we really imagined anything like today’s GRI Standards back then. Reporting companies weren’t ready for it – there weren’t enough reporters, for one thing, and the disciplines and norms of reporting hadn’t yet been established. I think our original steering committee members must be incredibly proud, and more than a little surprised, at how much GRI has accomplished.
What kind of an impact do you believe the establishment of the GSSB and the launch of the GRI Standards will have on sustainability reporting? 
The launch of the Standards marks a new phase for sustainability reporting. Using the Standards, reporters will be able to meet the needs of their readers, in the context of their business strategy, with significantly more rigor and professionalism. And the GSSB – consisting of outstanding individuals in the sustainability reporting field – has put in place robust and transparent processes to ensure the Standards are up to date and fit for purpose. There will be no more all-encompassing overhauls, no more waiting for years to refresh the content, no more one-size-fits-all.
There is also an increasing appetite for international standard setting in this area, and for joining-up efforts related to the Sustainable Development Goals. For example, the report of The Finance Working Group of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission includes calls to ‘Create an International Sustainability Standards Board’ and to ‘Create corporate sustainability benchmarks aligned to the SDGs’. The GSSB and GRI Standards already represent important steps in this direction. 
What are your main goals as the Chair of the GSSB for the next year? How about in the longer term?
We have a rolling plan of work that will see us updating Standards for the first time since their release. Our first priorities are the topic-specific Standards for Water and Occupational Health & Safety, and later this year Economic Performance, Effluents and Waste, and Human Rights-related Standards. The launch of the Standards essentially involved a conversion of existing G4 Guidelines content into the new format: from now on we’ll be creating content, testing the limits of this new format and seeking to ensure it all works in the real world. We consult periodically on the development of our work plan, but we are always looking for input from users, readers and other stakeholders to help ensure our work meets their expectations.
Having worked with corporate accountability and transparency topics for a quarter of a century, how would you evaluate the current atmosphere towards reporting, and how has it evolved from early days?
There is no doubt that GRI has been successful in elevating sustainability reporting to common practice. It may not yet be universal, and the quality still varies greatly, but the number of reports is counted in thousands annually, and they are produced everywhere in the world. Sustainability reporting has become an established expectation for companies. While there remain differences of opinion with respect to the specific approach taken in sustainability reports, few argue with the basic premise that corporate accountability is served by sustainability reporting that uses rigorous, independent standards.
Moreover, the practice of sustainability reporting has served as a platform to open up conversations inside reporting organizations – about their strategy, systems, practices, and how they collaborate to meet their vision – that otherwise are very difficult to initiate and sustain. This proves at least as valuable to the reporting organization itself as to the readers of reports.
What would you say are the biggest trends driving transparency among corporations today, and by which constituents?
Stronger engagement with supply chains is making a huge difference for reporters. Demands from customers for improved transparency have brought large numbers of suppliers into the disclosure game in recent years, and this is set to increase. 
Additionally, investor research on sustainability or ESG factors is now genuinely big business, and it relies on sustainability reporting. Companies that choose not to share high-quality information risk missing out, as investors increasingly value sustainability reports to help inform investment decisions.
What do you see as the biggest challenges in corporate reporting?
We still have work to do to demonstrate a credible and robust link between sustainability and business strategy. This may be something of a remnant of sustainability reporting’s roots in traditional communications, but now that governments, investors and others are demanding sustainability disclosure, this link is vital to ensuring reports are actually used.
Also, GRI may be the biggest and best-recognized sustainability reporting framework, but it’s not the only one. GRI, SASB, IIRC and many other frameworks can work together smoothly and coherently – and can together encourage many more organizations to begin reporting, and to improve their disclosures. We must raise our game and work in unison in order to realize our ambition to enable better decisions through sustainability.