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A Guide to the GRI Standards

Keslio Team
 minute read  
May 6, 2024
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In an era where sustainability is of paramount importance, businesses and organizations are increasingly recognizing the need to report on their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance. Sustainability reporting not only ensures transparency and accountability but also plays a crucial role in driving sustainable practices and policies.

At the forefront of this movement is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), an international independent standards organization that helps businesses, governments, and other organizations understand and communicate their impacts on critical sustainability issues. The GRI provides a comprehensive framework known as the GRI Standards, which has become one of the world's most widely used sustainability reporting tools. With these standards, organizations can better understand, manage, and communicate their sustainability performance, thereby contributing to a more sustainable and transparent global economy.

Understanding the GRI Standards

The GRI Standards serve as a global common language for organizations—large or small, private or public—to report on their sustainability impacts in a consistent and credible way. They provide a comprehensive framework that allows organizations to understand and communicate their impacts on the economy, environment, and society, including areas such as human rights and climate change.

The purpose of the GRI Standards is multi-fold. They offer a globally recognized structure for organizations to measure, understand, and then communicate their environmental, economic, and social impacts. This helps organizations to be more transparent about their sustainability performance and to make more sustainable decisions.

Furthermore, the GRI Standards are not just beneficial for the organizations that use them. They also provide valuable information to various stakeholders including investors, policymakers, capital markets, and civil society. For instance, investors use the information disclosed through the GRI Standards to assess the sustainability performance of companies and make informed investment decisions.

By offering a structured way to report on sustainability issues, the GRI Standards significantly enhance transparency. They allow organizations to disclose both positive and negative impacts, helping stakeholders understand where an organization stands in terms of its sustainability performance.

Moreover, the GRI Standards contribute to sustainable development by enabling organizations to report on their contributions toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By providing a clear and comparable picture of an organization's material topics, related impacts, and how they are managed, the GRI Standards help organizations align their strategies, measures, and reporting with the SDGs.

Exploring the Components of the GRI Standards

The GRI Standards consist of three interrelated series of standards: Universal Standards, Sector Standards, and Topic Standards. Together, they provide an inclusive picture of an organization's material topics, their related impacts, and how they are managed.

Universal Standards:

The Universal Standards apply to all organizations and provide a foundation for the sustainability reporting process. They have been revised to incorporate reporting on human rights and environmental due diligence, in line with intergovernmental expectations. This means all organizations, regardless of their industry or size, are encouraged to report on these critical areas of impact. The Universal Standards offer a broad view of an organization's sustainability impacts and provide general disclosures on the organization's profile, strategy, and approach towards managing its material topics.

Sector Standards:

The introduction of Sector Standards is one of the key changes in the latest revision of the GRI Standards. Sector Standards provide more consistent reporting on sector-specific impacts. They have been designed to address the unique sustainability challenges and impacts within specific industries and economic sectors. These sectors include but are not limited to Oil and Gas, Coal, Agriculture, Aquaculture, Fishing, Mining, Food and beverages, Textiles and apparel, Banking, Insurance, Capital markets, Utilities, Renewable energy, Forestry, and Metal processing.

Topic Standards:

Topic Standards are a set of standards that list disclosures relevant to a particular sustainability topic, such as water, energy, or labor practices. They provide specific guidance on how an organization should report on its impacts related to these specific topics. With the recent changes, the number of Topic Standards was reduced from 34 to 31, with the discontinued topics being absorbed into aspects of the Universal Standards.

List of GRI Standards

The 2021 Update to the GRI Standards

The 2021 update brought about several significant changes to the GRI Standards. One of the most noticeable changes was the reduction of the Topic Standards from 34 to 31, with the discarded topics being discontinued or absorbed into aspects of the Universal Standards. This move was designed to streamline the reporting process and eliminate any redundancies.

The most significant addition in the 2021 update was the introduction of the GRI Sector Standards. These new standards are designed to cover specific industries and economic sectors, thus enabling more consistent reporting on sector-specific impacts. At the time of the update, Sector Standards for Oil and Gas, Coal, Agriculture, Aquaculture, and Fishing were released for public use, with additional sectors, such as Mining, Food and beverages, Textiles and apparel, Banking, and others, in development.

These changes underline the GRI's commitment to maintaining an up-to-date, relevant, and effective framework for sustainability reporting. The updated GRI Standards are now better equipped to handle the complexities and specificities of various sectors, while also maintaining a strong focus on universal sustainability topics such as human rights and environmental stewardship. In the next section, we will explore how organizations can use these updated GRI Standards in their sustainability reporting.

Using the GRI Standards

The initial stage of any organization's reporting journey using the GRI Standards is guided by GRI 1. It sets the foundation by detailing key concepts, principles, and the requirements for reporting compliance with the GRI Standards.

Recognizing and evaluating an organization's impacts is an ongoing process. This process will differ based on the organization's unique context. Here, the Sector Standards provide valuable assistance by outlining the specific traits of a sector that give rise to its impacts. The Sector Standards offer a helpful tool for identifying an organization's impacts by detailing potential sector-specific impacts that the organization should consider and determine if they apply to its operations.

Identifying and evaluating the significance of an organization's impacts is highly dependent on understanding its unique context. GRI 2 and GRI 3 serve as guides in this process by providing detailed disclosures for different facets of an organization's operations and explaining how to identify and assess impacts and their significance.

Once the organization has evaluated its impacts' significance, it needs to decide which impacts to report. This involves prioritizing the impacts and grouping them into topics (such as 'water and effluents' or 'child labor'), which makes it easier to identify the most relevant, or "material", topics for the organization. GRI 3 also provides a detailed guide on how to categorize these impacts. For reporting compliance with the GRI Standards, it's necessary for an organization to record the process through which it identified its material topics, and GRI 3 provides the disclosures needed for this.

The Sector Standards also play a role in determining material topics. An organization should compare its chosen material topics against those in the relevant Sector Standard. This helps the organization ensure that it hasn't missed any potential material topics for its sector. If a relevant Sector Standard is available, an organization must utilize it when reporting according to the GRI Standards. Using the Sector Standards is not a replacement for identifying material topics, but rather a tool. However, the organization must still account for its unique circumstances when choosing its material topics.

Once an organization has identified its material topics, it needs to collect pertinent data to report specific information for each topic. The Sector Standard's topics list specific disclosures from the Topic Standards that are required for an organization in the sector to report on a particular topic. The Topic Standards outline the information that needs to be collected for reporting according to the GRI Standards. Along with the disclosures from GRI 2 and GRI 3, they offer a structured method of reporting this information. If an organization cannot meet specific reporting requirements, it may in some cases exclude the information, provided a valid reason is provided for the omission.

The GRI Topic Standards contain disclosures for reporting information on specific topics, such as waste, occupational health and safety, and tax. Each Standard includes a summary of the topic and disclosures specific to the topic and how an organization manages its associated impacts. An organization chooses the Topic Standards that match its determined material topics for reporting.

Flowchart of GRI Reporting Process

The GRI Standards permit an organization to report in a way that comprehensively covers its most significant impacts on the economy, environment, and people, or to concentrate only on specific topics, such as climate change or child labor. GRI recommends reporting “in accordance” with the GRI Standards, where the organization reports on all its material topics and associated impacts, and how it manages these topics. This approach provides a comprehensive view of an organization's most significant impacts on the economy, environment, and people. However, if an organization is unable to fulfill some of the GRI Standards' reporting requirements or only wants to report specific information for certain purposes, such as regulatory compliance, it can use selected GRI Standards or parts of their content and report “with reference” to the GRI Standards.


Throughout this guide, we've explored the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the GRI Standards, a leading framework for sustainability reporting used by over 10,000 organizations worldwide. These standards provide a clear, comprehensive path for organizations to increase their transparency, manage risks more effectively, and engage stakeholders.

In conclusion, the GRI Standards offer an invaluable tool for organizations committed to sustainability and transparency. Their flexibility, comprehensiveness, and regular updates ensure they remain relevant in our rapidly changing world.

At Keslio, we are deeply passionate about sustainability, equipping us with the expertise and extensive network needed to guide clients through their sustainability journey effectively and efficiently. Our expertise is particularly valuable for companies looking to embed sustainability practices into their businesses and investors looking to integrate ESG and impact into investment portfolios. To learn more about how Keslio can assist your organization on its sustainability journey, please don't hesitate to get in touch with us.

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