GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards Changes G4

Transition to the GRI Standards: Understanding the Main Changes

Dr. Thijs Willaert CSR & Responsible Sourcing

On October 19, 2016, the Global Reporting Initiative published the GRI Standards. The GRI Standards will gradually replace the G4 Guidelines for sustainability reporting. Although the new standards bring little changes in terms of content, there are a couple of points to note for reporting organizations. In this article, we’ll give you a heads up on the most important consequences of the transition. 

The G4 guidelines are currently the most widely-used sustainability framework in the world, used by thousands of organizations in over 90 countries. The GRI Standards build on this success of G4 and leave the main content, concepts and requirements unchanged. Organizations already reporting in accordance with G4 should therefore have no difficulty at all to prepare their reports in accordance with the new GRI Standards.

So why does GRI replace G4 with the Standards at all?

The changes to the content may be virtually nonexistent, but there are significant changes at the level of the structure and format deserving our attention.

The most conspicuous of these is the decision to restructure the guidelines into a set of modular, interrelated reporting standards, consisting of 3 general standards and 33 topic-specific standards. Whereas the G4 Guidelines were accompanied by an Implementation Manual, the content of the Implementation Manual has now been integrated into the standards, so as to increase the ease of use.

The new structure will enable GRI to update individual standards more regularly, instead of including all changes in three-year cycles and to respond with more flexibility to the demands of GRI stakeholders.

For an organization to report in accordance with the standards, they will have to meet the requirements in the three general standards, plus the requirements for each topic that is deemed material.

One benefit of the new standards is that organizations will have the option to reference individual standards. To give an example, if a company wants to report on its human rights performance but is not ready to report on other topics, it can publish a report with reference to the applicable GRI standard, without necessarily having to report on other aspects or topics.

Increased user-friendliness

GRI has also taken great care to increase the accessibility and ease of use of the standard, with a simplified terminology and a more logical structure. One of the most notable improvements is the clear and consistent distinction between requirements (mandatory content), recommendations (desirable content) and guidance (background information).

Reporting in accordance with the GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards

As with G4, organizations can declare their report to be in accordance with the GRI guidelines. The basic principle has not changed – organizations still have the choice between “in accordance – core” and “in accordance – comprehensive”, depending on the comprehensiveness of the disclosures made.

However, one notable difference is that the sector-specific disclosures are no longer mandatory to be in accordance. The sector disclosures are encouraged to be used as guidance for identifying the materials topics and for reporting accordingly.

EU-Regulation on Non-financial Reporting

It is worth pointing out that the transition to GRI Standards does not affect the suitability of the GRI framework for complying with the EU-Regulation on non-financial reporting: the G4 Guidelines were already fully aligned with the regulatory requirements and so are the GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards.


The GRI Standards were approved by the Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB) in August 2016, with the official publication following in October 2016. GRI recommends switching from G4 to the GRI standards as soon as possible. Until December 2017, organizations can either continue to use G4 or the newGRI Assurance standards. From July 2018 onwards, the use of the new standards will be mandatory in order to report “in accordance”.

Third Party Assurance on GRI Reports

Although GRI has indicated that developing the assurance guidance may become a focus area in the coming years, so far there are no significant changes in this area: while third-party assurance is not mandatory, GRI still recommends it to ensure the credibility and relevance of sustainability reports.

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Dr. Thijs Willaert Administrator
Dr. Thijs Willaert is Director of Marketing & Communication at DQS CFS GmbH
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Dr. Thijs Willaert Administrator
Dr. Thijs Willaert is Director of Marketing & Communication at DQS CFS GmbH
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