Does your organization follow the GRI standards for sustainability reporting? Then you should pay attention! There have been some changes in the revision of the universal GRI standards, which apply to organizations of all types and sizes. While many of the proposed changes are minor, there are a number of modifications that will force some reporting companies to rethink the content of their sustainability reports. In addition, the GRI reporting system has been updated. All important information can be found below.

The universal standards describe the fundamental principles and framework of the GRI Framework. Changing them therefore has far-reaching implications - also for the topic-specific standards. In this article, we will present the most important changes.

Changed structure

As a reminder, the GRI Framework previously comprised two types of standards:

- The so-called universal standards, which apply to all reporting organizations (101, 102 and 103).
- Issue-specific standards that focus on specific sustainability topics such as human rights, waste, emissions, etc. (200, 300 and 400 series).

With the revision of the universal standards, the system of reporting according to GRI was updated. The universal standards (they can be identified by the green cover) have been renamed to:

  • GRI 1: Foundation 2021
  • GRI 2: General Disclosures 2021
  • GRI 3: Material Topics 2021

The so-called sector-specific standards are new. They can be identified by a brown cover and a two-digit code number. The sector-specific standards do not contain any new disclosures, but help companies to identify their material topics. They identify and describe the key economic, environmental and social impacts of a sector, setting the context for reporting. The first sector-specific standard for the oil and gas industry was published in October 2021. A second standard for the agriculture sector is expected to follow shortly.

The topic-specific standards remain in place. However, three topic-specific standards were withdrawn because the content was either discontinued or included in the revised universal standards. Therefore, after the revision, there are now 31 topic-specific standards. All have a purple cover page and a three-digit code number.

Impact and the concept of materiality

One of the key concepts of sustainability reporting is "materiality": by this term, it is meant that reports must focus on the issues that are most relevant to the sustainability performance of the reporting organization. Many sustainability reports under the GRI standards include a materiality matrix that indicates the relevance and priority of specific sustainability issues. For example, companies in the oil and gas industry are likely to report emissions as one of the most important issues, while companies in the service industry may focus more on social issues such as employee well-being.

However, there are different approaches to defining materiality. Many companies still rank issues on two axes:

  • Relevance to stakeholders, and 
  • Relevance to the company.

It should be noted, however, that this approach has not been in line with the GRI standards for many years. The definition of materiality in the 2016 version is also based on two axes, but these are:

  • Influence on stakeholder decisions, and
  • Materiality of economic, environmental and social impacts.

How will this change affect practice? The focus will shift entirely to impact: Reporting organizations will need to ensure they understand their actual and potential economic, environmental, and social impacts. Of course, stakeholders still need to be involved. However, the goal here is not to understand stakeholder priorities, but rather to gather information and perspectives that contribute to a better understanding of the organization's impact.

Impact and due diligence

This focus on impact means that reporting organizations must establish a process to identify and manage their impacts. This is where the concept of due diligence comes into play. The term, almost entirely absent from the first version of the standard, now takes center stage. Due diligence is defined as "the process by which an organization identifies, prevents, mitigates, and accounts for its actual and potential negative impacts on the economy, environment, and people."

One of the most important issues reporting companies must disclose in their due diligence approach is human rights impacts. As described in the DQS Blog, many countries are working to make human rights due diligence mandatory(link). Updating the GRI standards thus ensures better alignment with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the various national legislative initiatives.

The distinction between core and comprehensive reporting is eliminated

Another notable change is the elimination of the distinction between reporting that addresses only core information (Core) and reporting that addresses comprehensive information (Comprehensive). This change means that reporting organizations must provide all disclosures for all topics deemed material.

Timeline and download

Application of the new version of the universal standards is mandatory from January 1, 2023. Prompt implementation of the new standards ahead of the deadline is welcomed by GRI.

Here you can download the revised GRI Standards. An overview of frequently asked questions can be found here.

How DQS can support your sustainability reporting:

As an independent audit and assurance service provider, we can support your sustainability reporting processes with the following services:

- Training: DQS is a certified GRI training provider
- Independent review and verification: we are an AA1000-licensed assurance provider for sustainability reporting (more information).
- Verification of sustainability KPIs (further information).

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Dr. Thijs Willaert

Dr. Thijs Willaert is Head of Marketing & Communications for the Sustainability and Food Safety segments. He is also an auditor for the external audit of sustainability reports. His areas of interest include sustainability management, sustainable procurement, and the digitalization of the audit landscape.