Having just finished revising my book, Sustainability Reporting: Getting Started, assurance and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) are on my mind. In my previous post I wrote about why we need to have sustainability reports assured. We hope that we can believe what we read in sustainability reports; third party assurance may give us some level comfort about the accuracy of the information reported in them. Accuracy is never guaranteed, but at least it is a step in the right direction.
Because the GRI Sustainability Reporting Guidelines is the most widely used framework for sustainability reporting, they figure prominently in the landscape of reporting. GRI pronouncements about assurance have significant consequences for how assurance is provided and reported in sustainability reports. Although the GRI recommends the use of external assurance, it is not a requirement to be ‘in accordance’ with the Guidelines .
The Guidelines do have something to say about how assurance reports are disclosed. Organizations that want to be “in accordance with” the GRI guidelines are required to indicate whether they have an external assurance report. In addition, for each disclosure in the sustainability report, the organization has to say whether or not it has been assured. In essence, it is a checklist of what has and has not been assured by an external third party.
The GRI has issued a clarification and a change to the guidelines!
On August 5, 2015, the GRI Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB) issued an interpretation on how an organization should reference its external assurance reports. This interpretation acknowledges there is confusion about assurance reports because readers do not always understand the language in them. Assurance reports come in many different permutations so this statement rings true. The recently issued interpretation recommends that organizations explain the assurance standards used, the level of assurance obtained, and any limitations of the assurance process.
The GSSB decided that organizations are no longer required to indicate assurance for each disclosure. Basically, the checklist is gone. Instead, reporters will provide readers with a summary of the assurance process and what the report means. This helps the reporters and the readers to understand more about what is being assured and how.
I think this change in how an organization reports its third party assurance is a positive step for reporters and readers. GRI’s stakeholders are seeking improvement to the guidelines and the GRI GSSB is responding in ways that are making the assurance of sustainability reports easier to understand.