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GRI Global Conference Update

Turning vision into action at the 5th GRI Global Conference

01 June 2016, Here you can find a wrap-up of the main discussions, debates, and action that took place during the three dynamic days of the 5th GRI Global Conference.

Embracing a new era of corporate disclosure
Almost 1200 sustainability leaders and practitioners from 73 different countries gathered in Amsterdam in May to be inspired, spark ideas and network, all with a common goal: to embrace the new era of corporate disclosure.

Over 200 expert speakers from governments, NGOs, multi-nationals and innovative start-ups delivered engaging sessions and plenaries, providing a host of perspectives and approaches to sustainability issues and the future of corporate disclosure.

There was a unanimous call for companies to step out of their comfort zones and become truly innovative to embrace the new era of sustainability and disclosure. The role of technology, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in particular sparked exciting conversations and debates throughout the conference.

Collaboration for action
The opening plenary, ‘20 years on: Are we making a difference?’ pointed to the key moment in the evolution of sustainability we are all experiencing, and how partnerships and collaboration will be vital for furthering this agenda. “Sustainability issues need to be embedded in all decisions by governments and businesses,” explained Michael Meehan. “The first step in achieving this is collaboration. It is imperative that we no longer work in silos with competing standards, and frameworks. We need the ‘walled gardens’ of sustainability to come down.”

GRI announced a new Digital Reporting Alliance during the Conference, with the aim of addressing two key challenges in sustainability reporting: the lack of structured data and the lack of demand for digital reporting. GRI also announced over a dozen new partnerships including those with the UN Global Compact, the Bombay Stock Exchange, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights, to further the sustainability agenda.

During the opening plenary, Conference participants were asked the question, ‘What changes in society are driving changes in reporting?’ The majority, 39%, pointed to increased capital market demand, with 26% accrediting it to increased regulation, and 20% believing the change is due to better corporate leadership.

Innovation and the role of business
The high expectations for business achieving the Sustainable Development Goals were discussed during the second plenary ‘Innovation for Sustainable Development: The Role of Private Sector Collaboration’. The Right Honorable Desmond Swayne TD MP, Minister of State at the Department for International Development UK, set the scene for the plenary discussion: “The SDGs come down to one thing – jobs. Governments can promote the circumstances for inclusive economic growth but private sector-led investment is the only sustainable engine of inclusive economic growth.” Innovation will be a key driver of growth, and Ernesto Ciorra, Head of Innovation and Sustainability at Enel, focused on the need to think differently and introduced the concept of ‘innovability’: “Sustainability and innovation are more than just embedded in the business. They are the business.”

In an audience poll, 60% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that business is better prepared and equipped to make the SDGs happen, rather than governments. Investors came out as the most likely constituency group to hold businesses accountable for progress on the SDGs compared with governments, civil society and competitors, according to 38% of the audience.

The technology revolution
Technology, data and innovation are becoming systemic, spurring developments as we move from vision to action. The ‘tsunami of data’ we’re witnessing, and how we can use it to shape the future and move beyond reports was addressed in the third plenary ‘Using Sustainability Data to Enable Transformational Change’. “Data is going to be endemic to all that we do; it will saturate everything,” explained John Elkington, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of Volans Ventures, and Chair of the GRI Technology Consortium. “We are going through another industrial revolution: information technology is disrupting one sector after another. My hope is that through engagement with companies – big and small, we can lead the exciting and challenging discussion on this data revolution.”

During an audience poll, 65% of participants believed sustainability data has driven transformational change over the past ten years, and 55% believed investors will be the biggest consumers of sustainability data in the future. Nineteen percent of the audience believed the current format of data is the largest barrier to using sustainability data effectively.

The importance of storytelling in the data revolution was also discussed during the plenary: “People make decisions based on data and on instinct. It’s the story that draws people in,” explained Paul Simpson, CEO at CDP.

Building trust and the multi-stakeholder approach
The final plenary, ‘Trust and Transparency: Building Better Business and Policy Worldwide’, was perhaps the most dynamic of all, with key speakers from international organizations, NGOs, government and business engaging in a lively debate about how we can build, measure and nurture trust. Lise Kingo Executive Director, UN Global Compact warned us that there is no ‘plan B’, that delivering a better future is not just an option, it’s a necessity. On the topic of building trust, Lise Kingo advised companies to look beyond the bottom line. “They must first do business responsibly, and then find ways to innovate around sustainability and the SDGs.” In an audience poll, 60% of participants believed it is possible to measure trust – a topic of lively debate by the plenary speakers.

The importance of a multi-stakeholder approach in building trust was emphasized by many of the speakers, with a real push for greater NGO involvement in decision making: “We have to learn to share information, resources and power. This is one of our biggest challenges. NGOs are integral to decision making,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director at Uprose.

When asked who can best safeguard transparency, opinions from the audience were mixed: 32% believed governments would best do this, 21% believed it would be the role of NGOs, 19% believed communities would best safeguard transparency, 15% thought the media would be best placed for this role and just12% believed it would be the work of business.

What next?
GRI’s own work in enabling a new era of corporate disclosure through its transition from reporting guidelines to Sustainability Reporting Standards was largely discussed during the Conference. Read the latest update and find out how you can get involved in shaping the future of corporate disclosure.

GRI’s Chief Executive, Michael Meehan, closed the Conference will a call on all delegates to turn ideas into action on their return home: “There have been so many ideas tabled, projects discussed, and even new initiatives born. Vision without action is merely a daydream. Action without vision is just passing the time. With both, you can change the world.”

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