Application Levels: All you need to know
10 January 2013

​The GRI Application Level Check has been quite a contested issue of late, coming under particular scrutiny after the recent realization that companies are making false claims in their sustainability reports. Here, we outline the GRI Application Level Check Methodology, explaining what it is and what it is not, and provide an in-depth overview of the process.

​The GRI Application Levels were introduced in 2006, with the launch of the G3 Guidelines. They show the extent to which GRI’s Framework has been applied in a sustainability report, and they communicate which disclosure items from the Guidelines or Sector Supplements have been addressed. A key point to note is that a report’s Application Level is self-declared by the reporting organization. Organizations can choose to sign up for the GRI Application Level Check to confirm their understanding of the Application Level system.

There are three types of GRI disclosure items – Profile Disclosures, Disclosure on Management Approach (DMA), and Indicators. There are also three Application Levels: A, B and C. When a ‘+’ is added to the Application Level - for example, Application Level A+ - it shows that a report has been externally assured.

Application Level A represents the largest number of GRI disclosure items that can be addressed in a report, and Level C the smallest.

In essence, the Application Level system provides organizations with a way to objectively display their use of GRI’s Framework.

Very importantly - and something that is often misconstrued - is that Application Levels are not a rating of an organization’s sustainability performance or report quality. They are also not a representation of formal compliance or accordance with GRI’s Guidelines.

Recently, it has become increasingly apparent that Application Levels are incorrectly understood. “Companies have been gaming the system,” as Mallen Bakker, Managing Director Daisywheel Interactive says. They are mistakenly viewing the Application Levels as a rating system and “doing whatever it takes to get the gold star.”

It is largely for this reason that a review of the Application Level system was selected as one of the focus areas in the development of the fourth generation of GRI Guidelines – G4.  In the G4 Exposure Draft, a proposal was made for the Application Levels to be discontinued. Views on this proposal were received, along with a lot of other feedback, and it is still very much under discussion by the GRI governance bodies. All proposals are now being reviewed by GRI’s Technical Advisory Committee, ahead of the launch of G4 in May.

So, what happens once a reporting organization has completed its sustainability report? Well, they can choose to submit their report to GRI, who will check it and verify the report’s Application Level. This paid-for service is called the GRI Application Level Check, and it confirms whether the report contains the required set and number of disclosures to meet the organization’s self-declared Application Level.

The Application Level Check process starts by GRI offering a Checklist of disclosure items that should be displayed in the report, depending on the organization’s choices. The organization uses this list to make an assessment of the disclosures required for the chosen Level. If there are unclear points, the GRI Report Services team clarifies what is expected to be disclosed, and how. In this way, the service is a channel to improve the published information.

Not all GRI reporters use the Application Level Check service – all reporters can upload their reports to GRI’s Sustainability Disclosure Database free of charge. A sustainability report is recognized as being GRI-based if it includes a GRI Content Index and a clearly stated, self-declared Application Level.

A Terms and Conditions document, and an Application Level Check methodology document, are available for all organizations that are interested in a Check. They explain the whole process of the Check, from initial sign up to receiving the GRI Application Level Check Statement. By submitting the sign-up form, organizations confirm that they agree with the terms and conditions.

There are two main elements of GRI’s Application Level Check: a check of the report’s Content Index, and a check of the location of a sample of the organization’s disclosures.

The check of the Content Index is the most important step in the process, as the Content Index is the basis for all report users to find information in a report, and to determine whether an organization has addressed the required set and number of GRI disclosure items to declare a particular Application Level.

The sample check also focuses on whether the organization has properly understood, and used, the Content Index. If the organization’s disclosures do not meet certain requirements, GRI provides a set of corrective action points to the organization.

When the Application Level Check is successfully completed, GRI issues a Statement that serves as formal confirmation of the Check. The reporting organization must then publish this Statement, along with the GRI Content Index, when publishing its report.

In December, GRI’s Report Services team conducted a customer satisfaction survey that was sent to all GRI reporters who completed a GRI Application Level Check in the past year. With regards to the service, many respondents indicated that they valued the feedback and support of the GRI team, and the opportunity the process gave them to gain new knowledge. Overall, reporters were very satisfied with the service (between 80 and 86%), with a small minority being dissatisfied (between 1 and 3%).

For more information on the Application Level Check, view this page.

To stay up-to-date with the G4 development process, click here.