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GRI takes the plunge: producing our first Externally Assured Report
02 December 2015
External assurance of sustainability reports is recommended in the GRI G4 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. It provides both report users and internal managers with increased confidence in the quality and completeness of sustainability performance data, making it more likely that the data will be relied on and used for decision making. 
GRI sought external assurance for the first time this year for its own sustainability report. Ahead of the release of our report in a few weeks’ time, we’re sharing some insights on the process. Sharon Hagen from the GRI Standards Division shared her insights into the assurance process.

Why did GRI decide to request external assurance for this year’s Combined Report?
GRI is not subject to any formal requirement to have our report externally assured, however the GRI Board of Directors recommended to have this year’s sustainability report externally assured for additional credibility. External assurance provides GRI with the opportunity to check and improve its data gathering processes and systems and allows GRI to be more certain of the data provided in the report. Verified and potentially improved data quality further benefits the internal use of sustainability information for management purposes. While the GRI G4 Guidelines recommend the use of external assurance for sustainability reports, it is not required.
 
How did GRI go about selecting an assurance provider?
The process of selecting an assurance provider started with a request for proposals for external assurance for all data gathering processes and systems related to the information published in our sustainability report. The proposals we received were assessed against selection criteria, such as the assurance provider’s experience using the ISAE 3000 assurance standard or comparable, the relation between the quoted fee and the service, and the assurance provider’s capability to meet our timeline for the publication of the report. We received eight proposals and selected the assurance provider which best met our criteria - ERM Certification and Verification Services (ERM CVS).
 
What were the steps taken to get disclosures in the report assured?
We held a virtual kick-off meeting to confirm the report timeline and dates of deliverables, plan the assurance activities, and finalize the disclosures to be included in the scope of engagement.
There was a two-day visit to our office in Amsterdam and there were some conference calls by ERM CVS to interview relevant staff in order to understand and evaluate the systems and processes used for collecting and reporting the information and data for selected disclosures. There were also interviews with management representatives responsible for managing the selected issues and disclosures covered by the assurance engagement. Samples of underlying documentary evidence were reviewed to support the reported information and data for the selected disclosures, including internal and external documents such as our process for identifying our material Aspects, our HR data systems and our emission factors and calculations.   

ERM CVS then looked at any outstanding issues and questions, and after reviewing the final approved draft of the report, ERM CVS issues the Independent Assurance Statement and Management Report. The Independent Assurance Statement includes their most significant findings and recommendations to provide transparency towards our stakeholders. The Management Report includes detailed findings and recommendations that will be used for internal purposes.
 
What was the scope and level of assurance provided?
We sought assurance on all data gathering processes and systems related to the information in our sustainability report for selected disclosures.  We did not seek external assurance on the application of the G4 Guidelines.

The assurance level was ‘Limited assurance’; the assurance standard used was ERM CVS’ assurance methodology, based on the International Standard on Assurance Engagements (ISAE 3000). ISAE 3000 was selected as assurance standard due to its focus on data quality and evidence gathering procedures.

Only the data for the reporting period 2014–2015 was assured. Data in the report from previous reporting periods has not been assured.
 
Were there any challenges in getting disclosures in the report assured?
The assurance process identified that the emission factors used to calculate our emissions from business travel by air have not been fully aligned with the latest available factors over the last few years. Therefore, we did not have a sufficiently solid base year to calculate our GHG emissions reductions (G4-EN17 and G4-EN19).

We will investigate which emission factors and methodology we should use to calculate our emissions from business travel by air to establish a new base year. We expect to report this new base year from reporting period 2015–2016 onwards and the amount of GHG emissions reductions and the gases included in the calculation in the following reporting period. A reason for omission of this information has been provided in the report for this reporting period.
 
What advice would you give to others who are considering getting external assurance for their report?
Start on time with the assurance process. It is important to engage with your assurance provider from the beginning of your reporting process as you can go through the process together. The assurance process is helpful to create more internal awareness about the reporting process, enhances the data quality and is a valuable step which we recommend organizations take.
 
The full GRI Combined Activity and Sustainability Report will be published mid-December, including the Independent Assurance Statement.