Back from the 5th GRI Conference in Amsterdam: our photo coverage and highlights

2016-05-18 09.17.27 HDRBetween May 18th and May 20th 2016, we spent a few days in Amsterdam for the 5th conference of the Global Reporting Initiative, aka GRI. For those of you who are unfamiliar with what the GRI does, the GRI is the body that has been publishing sustainability reporting guidelines that have become an authority among Corporate Social Responsibility professionals and practitioners in the corporate world (put it bluntly, SMEs have no clue about the GRI).

The least we could say is attending the GRI conference has been a fruitful and yet enlightening experience, with excellent networking and many insightful conversations with participants.

Some topics of our interest at the moment, haven’t been tackled enough, in our humble opinion, though:
– decoupling our economy with our use of natural resources is still a major issue for Corporate Boards, yet we haven’t heard of this notion in the sessions we’ve been to
– supply chain transparency, and enlarged responsibility in general, for both manufacturers and retailers, and how information systems might help, was just touched in a session dedicated to Turkey (rightly mentioning the many slavery cases in minerals in Africa, for instance), but that was it!
– we wanted more whistleblowing, ESG-profit warnings, ESG business plans, open data, new business models (circular, collaborative, functional economies) and how software adds value here… and also more in-depth presentations on expert topics, that is to say less panels, which tend sometimes to be superficial.
But nobody, nothing’s perfect! and we would definitely go again if sent back in times. This being said, we believe the high level of participants would enable for more presentations, less panels, to delve deeper into some topics critical for sustainability professionals.

Here are our highlights, thoughts, takeaways and some feedback about the contents of the event. In the form of a photo report.

First of all, opening words that struck us the most:
– the notion of inclusivity (hear ‘nobody stays left behind’) was everywhere;
– ‘don’t think that communities and companies have different interests‘!
– ‘if NGOs didn’t exist, you would still have people in your company willing to want to behave responsibly!
– your promises define the measurements of trust for the future;
– ‘vision without action isn’t real, action without vision is passing time, vision with action can change the world‘. (Joel Barker)

Technology and (big) data have consistently been introduced as the new, new things during this conference. Which came as no surprise to us, since we at Verteego are in technology, with a mission to help our customers enhance their levels of stakeholder trusts through collecting, processing, visualizing and forecasting data for the better. Here are some of the recommendations that we took note of :
– the need for tools to change corporate cultures;
– that data must be available at the right time in the right format, sometimes in real time;
– that financial data doesn’t tell you if an investment is good or not: analysis and interpretation of data does. The same goes for ESG data;
– there is questionnaire fatigue out there;
– when there’s too much data to crunch, materiality is the driver to decide what you’re looking for exactly;
– most of the time, data is available but too few people know where to find and extract it;
– data isn’t useful because it is pretty and colourful;
– make machine-readable data;
– we are far from drawing on data to extract a corporate story;
– get the data out of the reports and out of the reporting process;
– in all these respects, the XBRL taxonomy should help.

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This round table pictured below highlighted the maturity of the investment community towards sustainability reporting. Investors are now mature and actually can’t make decisions if not produced sustainability metrics! Also, investors are realizing that sustainability reporting is the face but it needs to be engaged after the due diligence to make sure there’s progress, as they’re doing in Vietnam. Sustainability is also a way to identify further opportunities. Sustainability should be an irresistible force to provide more and better information to consumers. Social media also play a key role in spreading the news. For instance in Bangladesh, the minute there’s a problem, like an injury, it’s on social media. Social media help stakeholders identify material issues! Marina Migliorato from Enel also reminded the audience that companies are never too big to talk and listen to their consumers. Back to investors, there was a consensus that sustainability data needed to help CEOs discuss the future of their industries to attract new funds. And about foreign investments, there are potential hidden costs if sustainability isn’t due diligenced. For example, the director of infrastructure and services of the government of the Philippines said he looked at global value chain, compliance, etc. And the World Bank said GRI will be coming strongly into the picture to measure the inclusivity of projects.

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Michael Meehan, GRI’s CEO, actually did a good introduction of the topic, saying how sustainability had moved from silos to walled gardens, just as it used to be in technology when frameworks and languages couldn’t interoperate. In the short run, more complexity would be confusing, so walled gardens are okay. The good news is walled are made to come down! Meehan drew a parallel between CSR professionals and Silicon Valley, saying it certainly doesn’t have much emotional quotient, but that it does things and sees what happens next, so it never ceils.

Technology is expensive so invest in change to activate leverage‘ – Michael Meehan

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Bob Massie, a cofounder of GRI and to our eyes clearly one of the most insightful speakers on stage during these three days, recalled his frustration when he was perceived as a green reactionary during investor meetings, not so long ago. Although times have changed, Bob Massie thinks the battle of winning over Corporate Boards isn’t over yet, and urgent issues, like climate change, need to be addressed right now and not in one generation from now. Massie emphasized the change in the very model of capitalism, which has evolved from enhancing (or depleting) financial capital only to enhancing (or depleting) multiple stocks.

Sustainability information isn’t information for someone else’s benefit anymore‘ – Bob Massie

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One of the milestones of the conference has been the focus on the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as published last year by the United Nations. One British Minister, Desmond Swayne, summarized these into one stance: it’s all about jobs!
Swayne recommends corporations stick to what they’re good at. Companies are good at economic prosperity, and that’s what SDGs are about, economic prosperity.
According to Swayne, the less the corporate world expects from governments, the better. Indeed, governments are about creating a climate of welcoming investments, and creating the conditions for a market economy. The informal economy needs to be engaged to turn legal by itself, and that includes creating a market by including new benefits.

European Union officials also brought in an interesting perspective and the notion that contribution isn’t everything: it’s okay to maximise value if you minimise harm, as a prerequisite. ‘By doing no harm, corporations actually do very good‘ said a European commissioner during the conference.

The UN called for more ambition and speed in the implementation of the SDGs: ‘We need to move away from pioneers and pilot projects‘ to finally reach all organisations and make an impact.

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The boss in charge of Sustainability and Innovation at Italian giant energy company Enel, reminded participants about the need for large corps to work with startups. Finally, someone talked about innovation!

Innovation comes from outside. Big ideas come from small companies. Big companies are in prison and need to embrace lateral thinking and open innovability‘ – Ernesto Ciorra

Ciorra also said corporations need four things to embrace the SDGs (perhaps starting with just one SDG): startups, leadership, work together and time to implement.

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The GRI Board was definitely one of the most insightful moments to us. The GRI is now moving from guidelines to a standard, which is a major move.

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Some highlights of this panel:
– there are various reporting needs for various reporting times or particular topics (stakeholder concern, reporting requirement,…) or purpose;
– initially, companies didn’t want standards because they didn’t know how to respect standards;
– the embedding of ESG information to the kind of deliverables, like financial statements, people want to have access to is key to their spreading;
better definitions are central, like impact (on others, not on the organization) or boundaries (sometimes, boundaries lie outside the organization);
– companies are reluctant to deal with their negative impacts; it’s hard to do, but companies need to address negative externalities for Society.

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And again, our highlights of this panel:
– public reporting bounds to improvement (the example here was the one of CLP Holdings Ltd. and their fatalities: reporting these enabled the company to make critical improvements, rapidly);
– due diligence should look at non only actual negative consequence but also potential negative consequences in the future;
– some things are better reported in a qualitative way, than with numbers;
sustainability reporting is not integrated reporting, they target two different audiences, investors being a subset of the sustainability reporting audience;
– GRI reports should be assure-able but external assurance is not a requirement, or SME will never join! ‘We expect assurers to be very skeptical and we are very skeptical about assurance
reporting isn’t cherry picking: corporations shouldn’t only report on things they’re good at;
– to be comprehensive, it’s important to disclose positive, negative and mistakes;
GRI focuses on sustainable development, not sustainable enterprise.

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Brazil was definitely one of the countries best represented amongst conference participants. The Brazilian session was very interesting, and started with Lenora Suki, from Bloomberg, whose slideshow demonstrated how Brazilian investors shifted to now understanding that sustainability has financial implications.

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Below, Adriana Leles, from SANASA, provided a good case study of how sustainability is undertaken and reported in the public sector.

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Then Heloisa Colovan, of Itaipu Binacional, introduced the Cultivando Agua Boa program (Cultivating Quality Water) that she led. The program was since then replicated in different countries, and even in Brazil in Bacia do Rio Doce (where the Samarco accident happened). Heloisa Colovan also broadcast a movie on refugee integration as organized by her company, Itaipu Binacional. It showcased a great gateway to jobs and safety for women having landed in Brazil from everywhere around the world, and it proved useful that this example was shared on the European territory considering the many issues the EU faces when it comes to immigration. To our knowledge, this moment was actually the only one during the conference that talked about refugees, despite the prominence of this topic at the moment.

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Last, Sonia Favaretto of Bm&f BOVESPA, demonstrated the audience that despite the recent political turmoil, Brazil is still and more than ever a place where investments will flow in, considering the progress the corporate world is making to match and outperform global standards thanks to its internal and forced learning curve.

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There was also a good roundtable on CSR reporting practices in China, with a representative of consultancy GoldenBee, a friend of Verteego, among the panelists (features below)

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We also went to a very good session on Shared value measurement and disclosure, drawing mainly from examples from Africa. Here are our notes:
– Corporate Shared Value (CSV) requires flexibility. So the less insurance, the more agility;
– Communities are sometimes more powerful than shareholders (e.g. have blocked a multi-billion project in Peru);
– IIRC and GRI have weaknesses: IIRC has no health issue involved, GRI doesn’t go far enough on social implications;
– Shared Value is a business strategy;
– Many times a project doesn’t create a win-win situation, so shared value communication is also about disclosing the two sides of the story;
– The Investment community must ask the right questions and question the true value of the projects considered;
– Maybe in the Resource sector, the maturity is there;
– CSV has to show economic benefits, provided the large investments required to actually do the projects.

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Abdeluheb Choho, an alderman of the City of Amsterdam with a portfolio comprising of Sustainability, made his Agenda Sustainable Amsterdam unanimously adopted by the city council. Priorities are better air quality, sustainable energy, energy savings and emission free traffic. It should by the way be noted that many taxi drivers in Amsterdam drive Tesla 😉

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Don’t worry, there were also times dedicated to chilling out

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It was also possible to charge the battery of your smartphone doing some sports at the same time:

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Other pictures that we thought we would share with you, albeit without any comment:

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