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Sustainability Reporting: Ceres Catalyzes a Worldwide Movement

Corporate sustainability reporting is standard practice, with recent research showing that 93 percent of the world’s top 250 companies now report. Yet what we take for granted today was considered a pipe dream less than 20 years ago.

Ernst Ligteringen

Ernst Ligteringen
Chief Executive, GRI
Read an interview with Ernst

March 2014

Google 'sustainability report' and you’ll come up with a quarter of a billion results, with major corporations like GM, Caterpillar, Coca Cola, Ford and Shell topping the list with links to glossy reports detailing their environmental and social performance and strategy. Corporate sustainability reporting is standard practice, with recent research showing that 93 percent of the world’s top 250 companies now report.

Yet what we take for granted today was considered a pipe dream less than 20 years ago. As Bob Massie, Ceres Executive Director from 1996 to 2002 puts it, “The whole idea of having an environmental ethic, or measuring your performance above and beyond your legal requirements was considered completely insane. Sustainability was considered to be a shockingly difficult thing that no company would ever voluntarily take on as a goal.”

But Ceres dreamed big, and in the late 1990s set out with the Tellus Institute to establish sustainability reporting as a common practice worldwide. One of the biggest hurdles was creating a standardized approach among many competing visions that could be embraced globally.

What emerged was the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the most ambitious worldwide effort to boost corporate disclosure on environmental, social and human rights performance. After five years of incubation at Ceres, GRI was spun off to become its own organization, now located in Amsterdam.

Today thousands of organizations report their impacts using GRI’s Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. The organization boasts a Secretariat with nearly 70 staff; seven ‘Focal Points’ regional offices around the world – in Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, India, South Africa and the United States; over 600 Organizational Stakeholders; and a wider network of thousands of other individuals and businesses.

And the results? GRI Chief Executive Ernst Ligteringen says he’s seen many companies change their practices as a result of increased reporting. GE and Siemens, for example, have turned the need for increased energy efficiency and lower emissions into a core strategic area that is providing enormous growth for these companies.  GE’s ecomagination initiative has generated more than $160 billion in revenue since 2005, while helping it reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions 34 percent, and its freshwater use 47 percent—and save $300 million.

Natura Cosméticos is training thousands of women who are often single heads of households because it sees that improving the economic status and position of women in society is also economically beneficial to the company.

Sustainability reporting has also become so mainstream that it is moving into the regulatory realm as the European Parliament, China, India and many other countries adopt mandatory sustainability disclosure requirements. And the emerging movement towards integrated reporting of sustainability data with financial data offers further potential for truly transforming corporate environmental and social practices.

Ceres’ experiment, begun some 17 years ago, has shifted the landscape on corporate sustainability reporting and performance in ways that only visionaries like Ceres’ founder Joan Bavaria, Bob Massie and Tellus’ Alan White could have foreseen.

Read our interview  with Ernst Ligteringen, GRI Chief Executive

Ligteringen talks with Ceres about GRI’s evolution over the past decade, today’s shifting landscape for sustainability reporting, and the challenges and opportunities the organization faces in this new terrain.

View the interview with Bob Massie

Read more about our impacts over our 25-year history