Thursday, 6 June 2013

Reflections on the 2013 Global Reporting Inititative Conference, Amsterdam

By Professor Carlos Larrinaga, Universidad de Burgos

Following an exchange of opinions on the CSEAR Facebook page between myself and some colleagues, Colin Dey asked me to write a short piece with my reflections about the GRI conference recently held in May in Amsterdam.

This was my fourth GRI event. The first time was in 2001 in London, and I was a member of a working group on integrated indicators. It was very exciting to see a good combination of auditors, consultants, NGOs, union representatives and some academics. At that time I wrote an article in SEAJ on this issue with some of my reflections. To give an idea of the people involved in that moment, Mathis Wackernagel (a leading ‘footprint analysis’ researcher) was the chair of my working group. Resulting from this work was the 2002 GRI reporting guidelines, in which not all the discussion of the working group were included.

I also volunteered in 2004 for a regional meeting in Geneva, in which the third generation G3 guidelines were already under preparation. It was at this point I perceived a change: fewer stakeholders were present, and instead, consultants were the largest number of attendants. This shift has intensified further in the conferences I attended in 2008 and in 2013.

In the area of social and environmental accounting, there is ample evidence of the loose relationship between corporate sustainability reports and sustainable development. And two observations suggest to me that the GRI conference is just reflecting this.

First, something that is quite strange from an academic perspective, is the design of the conference: it was about the “disclosure” of the new guidelines, in one direction: from the designers to the public. I was part of the public. And I had the feeling that they were trying to sell me this product, in a commercial way.

Second, and related to the first point, was the lack of dialogue between different groups. I only could hear the heterodox voice of Sharan Burrow, from the ITUC. Other speakers were interested in the growth of corporate reporting, but very little was said about sustainability. Academics were confined to a separate parallel session. And while we were discussing the public policy context of sustainability reporting, the other parallel session, about financial markets, was crowded. A clue perhaps?

The academic critique of integrated reporting developments did not affect the ‘official’ conclusion that integrated reporting is part of the future of corporate reporting. And when Charles Cho (also present at the academic session) mentioned those critiques, an IIRC representative just sidestepped the discussion.

In conclusion, the GRI conference exemplifies the basic paradox of social and environmental accounting. Sustainability reporting practice is increasing, but only as far as it is just loosely coupled with sustainable development. The question then is raised: ‘should we engage with processes such as the GRI?’ And I think that the answer is ‘yes’. Our first endeavour is to understand, and to do so, we need to participate, to listen, to speak and to understand other languages. I do not think that truth is unique and fixed, but multifaceted and flux. In short, I think we need to speak with the devil, no matter how difficult it is.