Global Reporting Initiative: what it is and how to do it

July 2, 2024
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Global Reporting Initiative or GRI is an international independent standards organisation that helps businesses, governments and other organisations to better communicate and understand their impacts on diverse environmental social and governance issues such as climate change, human rights, and corruption.

Co-founded by Ceres, Tellus Institute, and UN Environment Programme in 1997, GRI develops various standards that are widely used by organisations for annual reporting and disclosures.

How do the GRI Standards work?


The GRI Standards are a modular system comprised of three interconnected series of standards:

  • The GRI Universal Standards, which are applicable to all organisations on a broad level;
  • The GRI Sector Standards, which are applicable to specific sectors, and;
  • The GRI Topic Standards, which are each dedicated to a particular topic and listing disclosures for that topic.

Altogether, these three standards provide flexibility for differing needs.

The practical guide to sustainability seporting using GRI and SASB Standards notes that the GRI supports broad and comprehensive disclosures on organisational impacts, in contrast with the SASB’s focus on a subset of financially material issues.


There are nine requirements for reporting in accordance with the GRI Standards.

If all requirements are not met fully, the organisation issuing the sustainability information cannot claim that the information is in accordance with the GRI Standards.

Instead, they may indicate that the reported information was prepared with reference to the GRI Standards.

The GRI Universal Standards GRI 1 also provides guidance for the required procedures for ‘Reporting with reference to the GRI Standards.’

  • Apply the reporting principles
  • Report the disclosures in GRI General Disclosures 2021
  • Determine material topics (Note that the GRI Standards adopts a double materiality approach—standards and frameworks sometimes differ in their definition of materiality)
  • Report the disclosures in GRI 3: Material Topics 2021
  • Report disclosures from the GRI Topic Standards for each material topic
  • Provide reasons for omission for disclosures and requirements that the organisation cannot comply with
  • Publish a GRI content index
  • Provide a statement of use
  • Notify GRI

Key concepts and principles

The four key concepts for the GRI Standards are listed in the GRI 1: Foundation 2021 document:

  • impact
  • material topics
  • due diligence
  • stakeholders

The GRI Standards also identify eight reporting principles that guide the quality and presentation of the reported information. Specific guidance on application of said principles is included in the GRI 1, as well as some suggested best practices for reporting.

  • Accuracy
  • Balance
  • Clarity
  • Comparability
  • Completeness
  • Sustainability context
  • Timeliness
  • Verifiability

Alignment with other frameworks and requirements

The GRI Standards are aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the ILO conventions, and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Thus, organisations can use the GRI Standards for reporting out on progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). GRI developed guidance for alignment with SDGs after the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Moreover, the GRI Standards are compatible with standards, frameworks, and initiatives issued by other organisations.

This page links the 2016 version of the Universal Standards with related sustainability initiatives such as the SDGs, the SASB Standards, BLab Impact Assessment, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), to name a few.

Tools and resources

The GRI Standards provide diverse tools for efficient and comprehensive sustainability reporting by organisations.

Their website includes an FAQ for general questions, a GRI content index template, and an inventory of certified software partners by country, among other resources.

Moreover, as the GRI Standards are marketed as a free public good, the tools are available in the public domain free of cost and usually in English language.

GRI certification processes are also available to third party software or tool providers who want to be GRI-approved, along with a document on GRI’s pricing policy for certification.

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The GRI Standards are widely recognised in the sustainability field, as well as specifically incorporated into other third-party sustainability assessments, such as Ecovadis.

Thus, information that is gathered and presented in accordance with the GRI Standards will likely garner high sustainability ratings.

Benefits of using the Standards for for-profit companies

Potential benefits of using the GRI Standards are improved credibility of the organisation and satisfaction of stakeholders plus shareholders.

For instance, a 2017 joint study by the Government & Accountability Institute and Baruch College, City University of New York found that out of 572 total companies, the 481 companies that utilised the GRI Standards scored higher on information quality and degree of verification of ESG disclosure than the 91 counterparts who did not use the Standards.

Applying the GRI Standards to sustainability reporting also helps companies gain a deeper understanding of their material issues, as the Standards provide a blueprint for high-quality data collection and thorough reporting.

This understanding will aid companies in other endeavors, such as risk assessment and future projections.

Moreover, as ESG reporting becomes more commonplace in the private sector, many stakeholders (such as consumers, investors, and employees) expect some sort of formal sustainability reporting process as a matter of due diligence.

The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance reports that over 96% of 2021 Sustainability Reports included a letter from the CEO, signaling to stakeholders that ESG is a priority for senior leadership.

76% of 2021 Sustainability Reports were accompanied by a press release publicising the data, and a majority of companies also included a materiality matrix in their reports to provide stakeholders with more detailed insight into the company’s sustainability strategy.

Given that the GRI Standards was the first globally accepted sustainability standard, it is a reliable starting point for companies that are looking to get started with sustainability reporting.

How to apply the GRI Standards

Process overview

The GRI reporting process is fairly open-ended as it provides guidance via its Standards, while giving the flexibility to organisations to determine the details of the process according to their needs.

The graphic is from the GRI Standards introduction document, and lays out the typical steps for reporting under the GRI Standards.

The GRI does not require an audit phase, and there is no set timeline for the assessment. The Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB) does set out a new work program (involving projects to review existing Standards and develop new ones) every three years to keep the GRI Standards up to date.

Thus, it is recommended that companies using the GRI Standards review and publicly disclose relevant information periodically and with due diligence. This is usually being done annually by organisations in the form of sustainability reporting. Reports may contain a GRI content index.

The content index makes reported information traceable and increases the report’s credibility and transparency.

GRI recommends that organisations report in accordance with the Standards, meaning that the organisation reports on all its material topics and related impacts and how it manages these topics.

However, if this is not feasible, the organisation can choose which content of the GRI Standards to apply and report with reference.

What changed with the 2021 revision of Universal Standards?

The Universal Standards were revised following recommendations from the GRI Technical Committee on Human Rights Disclosure (a stakeholder group for labor-related disclosures).

The revisions were developed according to a set of mandatory requirements for standard development, and were overseen by the GSSB Due Process Oversight Committee and approved in July 2021.

The changes will officially come into effect on January 1, 2023, although GRI encourages earlier adoption when possible.

The main goals of the revision were to:

  • incorporate mandatory human rights-related disclosures for all reporting organisations;
  • integrate due diligence reporting;
  • clarify GRI Standards key concepts, reporting principles and disclosures, ensuring that they align with recent developments in responsible business conduct;
  • drive consistent application;
  • encourage more relevant and comprehensive reporting;
  • and improve the overall usability of the GRI Standards.

Ultimately, the revision led to several key changes, namely:

  • setting expectations for responsible business conduct in intergovernmental instruments;
  • consolidation of reporting approaches (there is now only one way to report in accordance with the GRI Standards, where previously GRI offered ‘Core’ and ‘Comprehensive’ options);
  • key concepts for the foundation of sustainability reporting;
  • a revised process for determining material issues;
  • revisions to reporting principles, disclosures, as well as updates to structure/language of the Universal Standards, the GRI Standards system, and the addition of templates.
Global Reporting Initiative: what it is and how to do it
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