The first set of GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards, which mark a transition from ‘guidelines’ to ‘standards,’ was released for public comment on 19 April. For a period of 90 days from the release date, stakeholders can review and provide feedback on the initial set of six GRI Standards to the Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB), the independent standard-setting body, which has been commissioned to develop and approve GRI Standards. Comments on the revised format and structure of GRI Standards can be submitted via the GRI Consultation Platform. The public comment period for the Standards is intended to ensure that they are developed through what the board describes as “a multi-stakeholder approach.” Currently, 38 countries and regions reference GRI in their policies on sustainability reporting.

The new GRI Standards will cover the same subjects and related disclosures that were included in G4, the reporting guidelines issued in May 2013, but will be presented in an improved structure and format. As a guide to what is to come, Part 1 of G4 has the Standard Disclosures that all organizations should use to report their sustainability impacts and performance. It also describes the Reporting Principles that demonstrate effective reporting, as well as the criteria for meeting the Guidelines. ?Part 2, the Implementation Manual, explains:

how to apply the Reporting Principles,

how to prepare information, and

how to interpret the Guidelines’ concepts. 

Based on G4, the new standards will also include three ‘universal’ standards applicable to all organizations, and approximately 35 ‘topic-specific’ standards. The drafts of the three universal GRI Standards are what have been released first. These are:

The Foundation Standard, the entry point for organizations using GRI Standards

The General Disclosures Standard, which covers organisational profile, governance, stakeholder engagement, reporting practice, strategy, and analysis.

The Management Approach Standard, which covers disclosures surrounding the approach of management toward individual issues being reported on and applies to the topic-specific GRI Standards.

As well as the universal standards, the draft also includes the first three topic-specific standards: emissions, indirect economic impacts, and public policy. All organizations preparing a sustainability report in accordance with GRI Standards must use the three universal standards. Based on what is material to the individual company, a selection of relevant topic-specific standards will also be used to prepare the report.

In a press release announcing the comment period, Eric Hespenheide, chair of the GSSB said: "the GRI G4 Guidelines are evolving into a new set of modular, interrelated GRI Standards to enable reporting organizations to make a greater contribution to sustainable development and meet emerging stakeholder needs by enhancing the quality, comparability and accessibility of sustainability information."

The GRI Standards are designed to enable users to discriminate between ‘requirements,’ which are signified by ‘shall,’ ‘recommendations,’ signified by ‘should,’ and ‘guidance’ sections. The content of the guidelines “has been edited to improve clarity and simplify language, which will make the standards more user-friendly.” There is also guidance on how to report on topics not covered by the Standards. Finally, and of most use in complying with the new standards, the new modular structure allows individual standards to be updated discretely; which means that reports can be updated piecemeal to align with emerging best practice, any relevant new regulations, and any significant changes to issues covered by the topic-specific standards.

There are three main subjects covered by the Guidelines, and consequently the Standards. These are: economic, environmental, and social. The first three topic-specific standards in the draft were selected one from each of these subject groups. The first, indirect economic impacts, covers such issues as economic development in areas of high poverty, jobs supported in a  supply or distribution chain, foreign direct investment actions, economic impact of location change of activities or production, or of changes in environmental conditions. Emissions is largely focussed on greenhouse gas emissions, but also covers the emission of ozone depleting substances and other emissions such as nitrogen or sulphur compounds, organic pollutants, and particulate matter. The public policy standard requires the reporting of the value of direct and indirect financial and in-kind political contributions by a company, disclosed by country and by recipient.

The remaining topic-specific standards will follow the same format and structure as the first set. These are still being developed and are scheduled for release for public comment for a period of 45 days from 3 June to 17 July this year, following a review by the GSSB. The full timeline for the transition from Guidelines to Standards is given in the chart below.