You have probably heard that what gets measured is what matters. That is the idea behind sustainability reporting. Companies that issue reports make a public statement about their past actions and future goals around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. Sustainability reporting is no substitute for action, but it can often spur action by pointing out gaps and opportunities.

Sustainability reporting is relatively new. In the early 2000s, reporting was in its infancy and only a few companies published what they often called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reports. There were no formal guidelines explaining what CSR reports should contain.

Sustainablity reporting is now becoming standard practice, and more companies expect their suppliers to have done the work to publish a report that follows standard guidelines. In 2020, 90% of the companies in the S&P 500 index published sustainability reports. Back in 2011, less than 20% of those companies did so.

Multiple sustainablity reporting standards exist. In September 2020, the five largest reporting organizations agreed on a shared vision to define comprehensive sustainability reporting. These organizations include:

  • CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project)
  • Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB)
  • Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)
  • International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC)
  • Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB)

The CDSB and SASB standards concentrate on financial risk and reporting. The GRI Standards are more focused on issues that affect the economy, environment, and people in the communities in which they operate and are more comprehensive than CDP. They are also the standards that are most often available for download from company websites.

GRI Standards

The GRI Standards incorporate a somewhat overwhelming list of 37 standards covering ESG issues. They address everything from how a company measures economic performance to labor practices and non-discrimination policies.

The document describing all these standards runs 575 pages, so it is impossible to cover GRI reporting in a single blog post. Companies often hire independent consultants to help them undertake the vast amount of data gathering and analysis required.

This series is about environmental sustainability, so that is my focus. Below, I summarize the eight environmental GRI standards. Several of the topics below will appear in more detail in future blog posts in this series.

Materials

Organizations report on the total weight or volume of every material used to produce their products. These include process materials, such as cleaning fluids or etchants, as well as the materials used to package products.

Materials reporting must also specify whether materials some from renewable or non-renewable sources and calculating the percentage of recycled and reclaimed (collected and reused) materials.

Energy

Energy reporting covers the consumption of fuels, electricity, heating, cooling, and steam, both within and outside the organization. External consumption is akin to Scope 3 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, in that it covers both upstream and downstream energy.

Besides reporting on total energy consumption, organizations calculate their energy intensity, which is the energy per unit of product sold, per monetary unit of sales, or per another relevant metric. Energy intensity data put consumption into context and allows for comparisons between different organizations. The validity of comparisons, however, depends on which metrics each organization chooses.

The standards also require reporting on reductions of energy consumption achieved through conservation and efficiency measures. Outsourcing production does not count toward energy reduction.

Organizations can choose the base year for calculating energy reduction. This complicates comparisons since results can look quite different depending on which year is the baseline. When the 3DInCites Sustainability Committee read through 2019 and 2020 GRI reports, we found base years ranging from 2010 to 2018.

Water and Effluents

This standard looks at the entire scope of an organization’s water use, from sourcing through consumption and discharge. It also covers water stewardship, including the impact of withdrawing water from regions suffering from drought or that lack access to safe drinking water. Water withdrawal and consumption reporting requirements are quite detailed.

Biodiversity

For sites near “protected areas and areas of high biodiversity value,” organizations report on geographic location, type of facility, and the direct and indirect impacts of their operations on biodiversity. Critical issues include pollution, effect on native and endangered species, and whether impacts are reversible. Organizations also report on projects that protect or restore habitats.

Emissions

Reporting on GHG emissions covers Scopes 1, 2, and 3 (see the first blog post in this series). As with energy reporting, organizations calculate absolute emissions, emissions intensity, and reductions compared to a baseline.

The emissions standard covers more than just GHGs. Ozone-depleting substances, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and sulfur oxides (SOx) are also included.

Waste

The waste standard encompasses waste generation, disposal, and prevention. Calculations note the weight of waste produced, reused, recycled, and recovered. Organizations must distinguish between hazardous and non-hazardous waste.

Reporting also specifies where the waste is generated—within the organization, upstream (from suppliers), or downstream (when customers use the product). For example, semiconductor manufacturers must report on the waste from mining the metals used to make their products.

As with other standards, organizations describe actions they have taken to prevent waste generation and reduce the environmental impact of waste.

Environmental Compliance

Complying with local environmental laws and regulations should be a minimum requirement for any manufacturer. But if organizations receive fines or sanctions for non-compliance, they must report the information.

Supplier Environmental Assessment

This standard involves reporting on the environmental criteria by which organizations screen suppliers. Organizations must share how many suppliers they screen, what percentage passes the screening, and how the organizations handle the results. Examples include agreeing on improvements or terminating supplier relationships.

Sector-specific Sustainability Reporting Guidelines

Businesses in various industries create reports written in accordance with the GRI Standards. While every sector must report on the three major ESG categories, some reporting requirements are sector-specific. GRI is currently rolling out Sector Standards for 40 sectors, starting with those that have the greatest impact on sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The first three sectors to be covered under this new program are:

  • Oil and Gas (fall 2021 release)
  • Coal (in the process)
  • Agriculture, Aquaculture, and Fishing (in the process)

Mining is next on the list, followed by nine more sectors that make up the first group of target industries.

What does this mean for the semiconductor industry? Your company need not worry about Sector Standards until GRI launches standards for the second group of industries, which includes chemicals, machinery and equipment, and electronics.

Next Steps for Sustainability Reporting

Does your organization already publish sustainability reports? If you haven’t already done so, download the latest report from your company’s website and flip through it. It is useful to learn what your employer is doing now and what goals it has set. You may find an opportunity to contribute your expertise to help achieve goals for reducing emissions, energy, water, or waste.

If your company is not yet issuing sustainability reports, you might want to ask why. Perhaps you can start a discussion that will lead to both reporting and environmental action in the near future.

Julia Goldstein

Julia Goldstein is a writer and author with a materials science background, trade press experience,…

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