Using sustainability data to enable transformational change
20 May 2016

The sustainability report has been the cornerstone of non-financial disclosure for decades, but this is set to change. The new era of corporate disclosure is going to be digital, responsible and interactive. New and innovative approaches to disclosure are arising, focused on the data in the reporting process rather than the reports themselves.
According to 68% of the audience at the third plenary of the GRI Global Conference, sustainability information is most valued for decision making, over and above benchmarking or marketing purposes. By liberating the data from physical reports, sustainability information can be used in new platforms and by a range of data users – ultimately enabling better business and policy decisions to lead us towards a more sustainable global economy. During the plenary, global leaders in innovation and technology discussed the potential for using sustainability data to enable transformational change.

Moving beyond reports to enable transformational change

“These are immensely exciting times we’re living in,” said John Elkington, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of Volans Ventures, and Chair of the GRI Technology Consortium. “Digitization is bringing a tsunami of data – an immense potential driver of change. Previously, we needed a human battering ram to get sustainability into the boardrooms of companies. It wasn’t that they didn’t have the data, they just couldn’t see the relevance of the agenda we’re discussing today. This is definitely beginning to change.”

“Annual reports have been the main focus to date, but the digital revolution will disrupt this field, too. Companies producing printed sustainability reports are like saddle makers thinking they were sitting pretty as the first Model T rattled around the corner. The GRI Technology Consortium is tapping some of the most radical innovators on the planet to help ensure that sustainability reporting is fit for the future.”

Yesterday, GRI announced its new Digital Reporting Alliance which will address two key challenges in sustainability reporting: the lack of structured data and the lack of demand for digital reporting. The initiative was a key recommendation of the GRI Technology Consortium. The Digital Reporting Alliance will create the technical infrastructure for digital reporting by promoting an XBRL taxonomy and a platform for filing digital reports.

“Sustainability information from business and government represents a vast amount of data that is currently underutilized. For innovation to take place, this information needs to be liberated and provided in a way that can be analyzed and integrated,” said Michael Meehan, GRI’s Chief Executive.

“It doesn’t matter what the data is, it’s what we do with it that matters,” said Ian Short, CEO of Climate KIC. “We need a trusted platform for the data and the sharing of it.”

Cameron Brooks, Director, Public Sector Solutions at IBM Watson Group, believes we need technology to harness and better understand the data. “Our problems today are based around the fact that data is primarily unstructured – it’s all held in reports’ emails, images, videos etc. We need a system to understand all these different formats. This technology system would then really scale up the decision-making process.”

The data tsunami

Innovation and technology have a vital role to play in enabling access to high-quality information in real time to inform better decision making for all stakeholders.

“Data is going to be endemic to all that we do; it will saturate everything,” explained John Elkington. “We are going through another industrial revolution: information technology is disrupting one sector after another, and the automotive sector is likely to be next. My hope is that through engagement with companies – big and small, we can lead the exciting and challenging discussion on this data revolution.”

John Elkington pointed to the blurring of sectors as sectoral boundaries are broken down. Barriers between public, private and civil sectors in particular are being removed. “Can sustainability be part of this new economic transformation at an early enough stage to have an appropriate impact?” asked John Elkington.

The true value of sustainability data

“The value of data will be the insights it creates,” explained Paul Simpson, CEO at CDP. “We need to start at the end of the data pipeline: What do the users want to know in order for us to transition to a truly sustainable economy?”

The importance of storytelling in the data revolution was discussed: “People make decisions based on data and on instinct. It’s the story that draws people in.” John Elkington echoed these comments: “It’s all about storytelling and conversations. Data will be an enabler of this.”

Enrico Giovannini, Professor, Economist and Statistician at the University of Rome, warned that data has the power to achieve great things but also potentially increase divides. “Data is a renewable resource, an asset. But it has no regulated market. Without a special effort, data could increase the division beteen developed and developing countries, between public and private sectors etc. A big shift in thinking is needed. Mindsets need to change.”

Making use of the data in the future

Claire Melamed, Director of Growth, Poverty and Inequality at the Overseas Development Institute, talked about the need for a much broader understanding of who the data users are and how to process the data. “We need to focus on the data gaps, and not on the tsunami of data we are seeing. For example, for the UN SDG #12 which focuses on sustainable consumption and production, the UN only knows where data will come from for three out of the eight targets for that goal.”

Juan Costa Climent, Global Leader for Climate Change and Sustainability Services at Ernst & Young, believes we need a better understanding of the supply chain. “We must focus on critical, important aspects. Topics are evolving. Having more data and new technologies can help us assess what is relevant for markets. The beautiful aspect of this revolution is that we can get a better understanding of what matters in real time, on a daily basis.”

GRI’s new Digital Reporting Alliance aims to help organizations and stakeholders lead for the next era of corporate disclosure. For more information about the Alliance and how to join, please contact Bastian Buck, Director Standards Division.