Unlocking the power of reporting: businesses and the SDGs

4 min readOct 31, 2019

By Peter Paul van de Wijs, GRI’s chief external affairs officer

From the inception of the Sustainable Development Goals (‘the SDGs’) through the UN’s 2030 Agenda, GRI has championed the participation of the private sector in measuring and achieving progress. And a huge incentive for companies to get involved is improving their ways of working by embracing sustainable business practices.

Yet is this happening on the ground — and if so, how? What role does private sector reporting on progress have? Does an understanding of a company’s contributions to the SDGs lead to the development of new business models — and spur public and private sector innovation and collaboration?

Seeking to unlock the answers to questions like these led to GRI teaming up with global power company Enel. Through international engagement the project aims to establish the state of play on how reporting and partnerships can drive corporate change towards accomplishing the SDGs and lead to ideas for new collaborations. In the second phase of the project these ideas will be tested on the ground in four different countries.

Collaborate to inform

GRI and Enel launched a series of online collaboration forums, hosted by insights and strategy consultancy GlobeScan. The first forum, across two sessions, took place on 8 October — with a further forum to come on 14 November.

In October, we had input from a 12-strong expert panel, with 394 participants joining from 56 countries — including those from companies, governments, NGOs and other stakeholders — and in total, 845 comments and ideas put forward. Now, that is not just a lot of numbers, what it shows is the extensive engagement and widespread interest in the topic. Thanks to everyone who took part.

What was discussed

Where there was overwhelming agreement during the forum was that corporate transparency and accountability plays a key role in driving impactful change on the 2030 Agenda. When asked why reporting on SDGs progress is important, the most common answer (given by 44% of respondents in a poll) was committing the business to taking action.

We have published a report reviewing the discussions in the first forum, which I would encourage you to view. Below, are some observations on the themes that caught my eye.

Benefits of disclosure

On the use of reporting frameworks, such as the GRI Standards, the following benefits were highlighted:

· Kick-starting companies’ understanding of their SDG contribution

· Global guidance on a common approach to achieve the 2030 Agenda

· Identify gaps and opportunities to improve, collaborate or gain business advantage

· Increase data comparability with other companies

· Link SDG performance to business performance

One of the biggest barriers faced by businesses in effectively reporting is complexity. Asked what the greatest reporting challenge was, half of respondents highlighted complexity in disclosing performance. So, this indicates there is still a need to provide support and promote the tools already available.

What’s changing?

For some organizations, reporting on the SDGs has led to a shift in corporate action around new business models. Businesses aligned to specific SDG themes (e.g. businesses that have a significant impact on climate change) or specific sectors (for example, the fashion sector) are more likely to consider alternative business models.

When it comes to collaboration, certain sectors have made more progress than others, as a result of reporting on the SDGs. The food, plastics and finance industries were all highlighted.

Yet what’s surprising and a cause for concern is that relatively few examples were put forward by participants of SDG reporting leading to partnerships and new ways of working between private sector actors alone.

Instead, what can be regarded as currently the most productive examples of collaboration seem to be those between companies, civil society and NGOs or governments. An example here is a project between GRI, UNDP, and the Colombian Government — where companies came together to use data reported using the GRI Standards to understand private sector contributions to Colombia’s SDG targets and action to meet national SDG objectives.

What is still to do?

Participants began to explore what needs to be done to strengthen the role of reporting — and corporate transparency — to accelerate SDG action. Ideas included:

· Increasing awareness, education and support for businesses around reporting standards, record management, materiality, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and target setting

· Promoting reporting as a learning tool to drive best practice across sectors

· Providing different types of businesses with more tailored support

Next steps

In some ways we have more questions than we started out with. But that’s okay! The engagement and buy-in from many key stakeholders was palpable. And our next forum on 14 November will build on these discussions as we look to develop a clear vision for what we need to do next.

This forum will look at how we strengthen the role of future SDG reporting, to enhance sustainable business practices and actions, stimulating new approaches that will ultimately drive corporate progress for the SDGs.

Whether you participated or not in our first forum, you are very welcome to join us as we develop this vision. In turn the outcome of both forums will inform the plans from GRI and Enel to develop solutions and continue the dialogue around the world through regional events, during 2020.




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