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ERA's Environmental Compliance Management Blog

Interview with Alyson Genovese: GRI Expert

Posted by Anamaria Sporea

GRI Expert Alyson GenoveseAs Head of Corporate and Stakeholder Relations in North America for the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Alyson Genovese knows more than most about the impact of sustainability reporting on a business' bottom line and future growth.

With a diverse background in corporate social responsibility, public affairs, corporate citizenship, sustainability communications, and stakeholder engagement, Genovese is uniquely qualified and has insights about the relevance of corporate sustainability and reporting.

Alyson Genovese is one of our exciting keynote speakers at the conference. She will be providing an in-depth look into the latest trends in sustainability reporting. She gave us an exclusive taste of some of what she will speak about at the annual ERA Ingenuity at Work conference.

Taking place in Philadelphia, PA from September 18 to 20, 2017, the conference is set to be a collaborative and client-focused event that closely examines topics such as risk aversion, cost reduction and implementing sustainability strategies. Register today to benefit from the limited early bird price reduction!

We sat down with Alyson Genovese to learn more about the GRI and what she's forecasting for the future of corporate sustainability. 

ERA: What is GRI?

Alyson Genovese: GRI is 20 years old and our Secretariat is based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. We were founded by Ceres and the Tellus group and UNEP, back in Boston, USA. We have a staff of about 90 people operating in 11 countries around the world. We are the developer of the world’s most widely-used standards for sustainability reporting, The GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards (GRI Standards). Organizations use the GRI Standards to report on their broader environment, social and economic impacts. We help companies measure, manage and communicate about whether they are being good stewards of the world’s resources. Thousands of organizations, in over 90 countries, use our standards.

Tell me more about yourself.

I have been with GRI for about two years now and I manage and direct all of our activities in North America, which means I work with organizations in Canada and in the United States to make sure that they know how to use the GRI Standards and that they have a relationship with GRI. I work with organizations that either want to start reporting or are actively reporting and want to get better at it. So, I will often help an organization stay on top of sustainability reporting trends, as well as issues and opportunities.  

Can you explain what “sustainability” is, as a concept? As you would to a person who knows very little about it?

“Sustainability” is a term that is used a lot these days and I sometimes wonder if it isn’t so overused that people no longer understand what it means. Sustainability is just about making our resources last longer. One aspect of that is being more mindful of how companies and people use resources like energy and water. Another aspect of sustainability is understanding that companies use lots of different types of resources and these are often things of which we don’t naturally think: for instance, the fact that demand from one large business creates impacts throughout its supply chain. If a supplier company is, for instance, polluting a river somewhere and your company does a significant amount of business with that supplier, then your company is in a position to motivate that supplier company to clean up the river. So sustainability in the corporate context is also about expanding organizations’ understanding of how their business impacts the world and our global society. It is an understanding that it is no longer acceptable for businesses to make profits at all costs. It’s about helping businesses be more responsible and accountable for the full scope of their activities. 

What are the motivating factors for corporate sustainability efforts?

There are many factors and it really depends on the corporation, but, in general, what we see is that companies are increasingly looking to become more efficient and lower costs on things like energy and water use. For instance, by treating employees better, those workers are more likely to stay with the organization longer and thereby save the business money by reducing employee turnover. We also see more and more that severe weather such as prolonged droughts and extreme heat are starting to affect the ability of some companies to get the supplies they need. So some organizations begin sustainability reporting to learn how best to mitigate risks. Most companies begin sustainability reporting because the stakeholder demands that they do so. At GRI, we help companies during this journey. We help them not just to do less harm, but also, we help them create opportunities to do some good for the world and the business.

What is sustainability reporting?

Sustainability reporting is the process of measuring, managing and communicating about an organization’s non-financial impacts. We know that while sustainability issues may not be currently affecting the bottom line, they may in the future. So this type of reporting also serves as an advance warning system. At GRI, we believe that organizations need to be transparent with their stakeholders about their impacts on the environmental and our global society. Much in the same way that companies report on their financial impacts and performance, it’s important for companies to be mindful of their non-financial performance. Sustainability reporting is an important way that companies can give stakeholders this information. We believe that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Reporting allows you, as a company, to shine a light on issues and to track them over time, in order to mitigate negative impacts.

In terms of activities, what does sustainability reporting entail? How do you do it?

First and foremost, sustainability reporting requires companies to understand who their stakeholders are and what things those stakeholders are concerned about. Together with their stakeholders, companies then need to decide which sustainability topics are most important for the business and put systems in place to track company data related to those topics. (It is important to note here that this materiality assessment isn’t about how the company is impacted; it’s about how the business is impacting the environment and society.) As the company comes to the end of its reporting cycle, it needs to compile and analyze this data and then publish it in a report. The GRI Standards explain how a company should do all of this.

Who should publish sustainability reports?

Any organization really should be reporting on these facts. We see that most large multinational companies issue sustainability reports. For instance, in the United States, over 80% of the S&P500 companies issue sustainability reports. But it’s not just for large public companies. We have privately-held companies, hospitals, municipalities, nonprofit organizations, organizations of any type can and should be measuring, managing and communicating about their non-financial impacts.

Why is it important to engage in this kind of reporting?

More and more company stakeholders are demanding this information. So meeting stakeholder demands is a good reason to report. There is also increased regulation recommending or requiring the disclosure of this info. But the best reason for companies to begin reporting is to begin reaping the myriad benefits of reporting. Sustainability reporting helps businesses do a better job of managing longer term risks and opportunities. It highlights issues that may not currently be affecting the bottom line, but may well down the road. This is why more and more investors are looking to understand how companies are performing in terms of sustainability. Other benefits of reporting include improved management systems, more satisfied employees, and better access to financial capital.

Join Alyson Genovese at the ERA Ingenuity at Work Conference 2017 for More

ERA is proud to present even more industry insights from Alyson Genovese at our conference taking place in Philadelphia from September 18 - 20, 2017. Register now to get the vital information you need about sustainability reporting and how it can benefit your business.

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Topics: Sustainability