The pursuit of corporate sustainability: experiences from the pandemic

By Christine Koblun, Head of Content Development & Program Delivery, GRI

Earlier this summer we reached out to our network to build an understand of their most pressing needs, as they attempt to address the materiality of COVID-19. As one of our stakeholders from Zimbabwe put it: “Sustainability reporting prepares companies to evaluate their resilience — and GRI provides a strong and wide framework to look at the different areas of risk.”

Through these discussions, companies told us that:

· The sustainability context in which they operate has drastically changed;

· Many were not sufficiently prepared for such a large-scale and global crisis;

· Multiple stakeholders — including investors, customers, employees, governments and civil society — are pressing for transparency about corporate actions to remain resilient;

· The global nature of manufacturing has created significant disruption to supply chains and business operations.

To share GRI’s expertise, and help companies unlock the opportunities of sustainability reporting as they chart a way through and beyond the pandemic, we convened an events series. Held virtually during June and July, these free and interactive webinars brought together a diverse range of experts.

In total, more than 20 speakers contributed — including sustainability reporting practitioners, investors, rating agencies, consultants and other specialists — with speakers from Denmark, India, Italy, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Mexico, Singapore, The Netherlands, UK, United Arab Emirates, USA and Zimbabwe. Across five sessions, over 2,400 participants from around 100 countries joined us.

The webinars were a platform for sharing ideas, including possible solutions to some of the most pressing sustainability challenges being experienced by organizations. Recordings of the sessions are available to watch on demand (use links below). A brief overview is included below, giving a flavor of the discussions and topics addressed during each.

1. The role of sustainability and transparency in designing the ‘new normal’

The opening session was an opportunity to hear how different organizations have adapted to the challenges of the pandemic, and how integrating sustainability into their business strategy has helped them respond.

Representatives from three companies — Safaricom Ltd, Aramex and Ethanol Company Ltd — were on the panel. Emerging themes included how, within an uncertain global landscape, businesses are striving to remain sustainable through a ‘shared value’ approach, creating products and partnerships that address societal needs. As Karen Basiye of Safaricom put it “the role of business extends far beyond profitmaking.”

Wider perspectives were provided by KPMG India, Moody’s and International SOS. Discussions here ranged from business continuity communications, to the growing relevance of ESG data, and changing attitudes in the workplace to health and wellbeing.

2. Using sustainability impacts to manage risks and build sound business continuity plans

Our second webinar looked at the lessons learned in using sustainability reporting to evaluate risks and resilience, a subject that has understandably been propelled to the forefront of the corporate mindsets at this time.

A panel discussion with six organizations (Orbia, TIM, CEMEX, Singapore Green Building Council, Institute for Sustainability Africa, and Intel) saw consensus on the importance of sustainability reporting in enabling companies to ‘future proof’ their businesses, with those that integrate sustainability criteria in their strategies being better placed to cope with the impacts of the pandemic.

A live poll during the event confirmed the view that the vast majority participants believed we will see a stronger focus on risks management in future sustainability reports.

3. What COVID-19 means for rethinking stakeholder engagement & materiality assessment

GRI’s Chief Business Development Officer, Mirjam Groten, shared why the way organizations approach stakeholder engagement and materiality assessment can be expected to change as a result of the pandemic, and how GRI’s services can provide assistance.

A poll revealed that 85% of participants agree companies will have to reassess whether their material topics reflect their impacts and stakeholders’ assessment, as a result of the COVID-19. This illustrates why innovation in reporting in required, with an opportunity to improve practices, and that a reprioritization of material topics in inevitable. Furthermore, as the way organizations involve stakeholders is likely to be increasingly virtual, companies will need to tailor engagement to ensure the quality of conversations and feedback is not compromised.

A reporters’ panel (with Wipro Ltd, Enel and CBRE represented) offered current insights, including the emerging importance of employee wellbeing and diversity and equality as material topics. One insight is that social topics are growing in significance, with organizations starting to recognize the inter-connectedness of different topics.

On stakeholder engagement, transparency was highlighted as more important than ever, especially when managing expectations of investors. An external perspective was shared by Kempen Capital Management, which included examples of the disclosure areas investors are focused on because of the pandemic.

4. Why transparent and sustainable supply chains are more resilient

As I highlighted at the beginning, supply chain disruption has been raised by companies as a COVID-19 related concern. This has sharpened the focus on the need for sustainably managed, transparent and well understood supply chains.

Our panel (with Dell, JSW Group and Omnicane) explored the overlapping sustainability considerations across industries — including supply chain KPIs, audits and assurance, and how to involve suppliers in sustainability partnerships. Recent experiences shared from the crisis included doing more to support SMEs, digitization of the supply chain, and how to deliver supplier training virtually.

5. 2020 outlook — innovating the sustainability report

The final session looked beyond the pandemic and examined how future reporting may adapt as a result of COVID-19. Our chief executive, Tim Mohin, shared his reflections on the webinar series, noting that the high participation demonstrated a widespread acceptance of sustainability and transparency as the new normal.

GRI’s Chief of Standards, Bastian Buck, participated in an open Q&A, with the focus on how the GRI Standards support corporate reporting on the pandemic. He emphasized how the Standards relate to COVID-19 related topics, and shared plans for ongoing and future revisions.

A four-strong panel (Intel, Orbia, Safaricom and JSW) then explored 2020 reporting developments, with discussions focused on two key issues. Firstly, which sustainability topics will be added emphasized or changed in 2020 reporting as a response COVID-19. The main responses focused on:

· Business continuity and risk management

· Supply chain strength and disruption

· Employees and the future of the workplace

· Growing inequalities in society

· Contributing to the economic recovery

· Taking a holistic view of health and wellbeing

Secondly, how the pandemic realities are changing the reporting processes. Contributions included:

· Report creation moving more in-house rather than using consultations

· Deepening digitalization, including when it comes to assurance processes

· Tailoring information for different stakeholders

· More forward-looking reporting, in terms of target-setting and managing risk

The rich and varied discussions that this events series stimulated were hugely encouraging. What was clear throughout out is that the way organizations understand and communicate their impacts is more important than ever before. I am thankful to all of the presenters, panellists and participants.

Rest assured that GRI will carefully reflect on the findings as we redouble our efforts to support organizations to use reporting and transparency to empower their decision making, as they contribute towards the realization of a more sustainable world in the aftermath of the pandemic.

GRI is the independent international organization that helps businesses and other organizations communicate and understand their sustainability impacts.

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