If I were to mention the words “big data,” “purpose,” and “millennials” all in one sentence, you might be inclined to think I was talking about the next hot Silicon Valley startup. But I’m actually talking about last month’s Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Conference in Amsterdam, which brought together more than 1,000 sustainability professionals to talk about the future of sustainability reporting.

Believe me—I understand. The words “sustainability reporting conference” don’t exactly inspire the same passion and energy as a tech startup, but the event was surprising in more ways than one. Conversations ranged from how generational mindsets are shifting, to open-source platforms, to the circular economy, all converging on one key finding: Reporting is poised to make a major pivot. To what, exactly, remains to be seen.

Here’s what we learned during our three days in Amsterdam:

  • From Guidance to Standards: GRI is changing the game or, more accurately, changing the terminology. Gone are the G4 Guidelines; here to stay are GRI Standards. So what does this mean? Tactically, it means that “topics” replace “aspects,” “disclosure” replaces “indicators,” and the GRI Index hangs in the balance. Broadly, it means that GRI is attempting to remain the only sustainability reporting game in town by simplifying the reporting process for companies and providing more precision and comparability overall. But are we willing to transition to yet another standard? Is there appetite for a post-G4 world?
  • Pre-financial is the new non-financial: Increasingly, investors view sustainability as more important than ever, and they believe that it should no longer be thought of as “non-financial,” since that implies information unrelated to financial performance. The preferred term, “pre-financial,” indicates that sustainability information helps anticipate risks that are material to investors. This is especially true for climate change, which has recently gained steam among investor circles like the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures.
  • Forget the s-word, there’s a new p-word in town: Some companies think the word “sustainability” is becoming old fashioned. This is not just the case for reporting, but also when it comes to broader company strategy. Companies like Seventh Generation are leading the charge to talk about purpose, in part because it meets the value system of a certain generation. Speaking of which…
  • Millennials, schmillennials: Speakers on the plenary stage and companies roaming the hallways expressed a desire to better understand how to capture the attention of this elusive generation through their reports. Strangely, those from the “m-word” generation were almost entirely absent from the conference, reinforcing the belief that millennials don’t necessarily like the format and rigidity of sustainability reports. That said, they do apparently read—a lot. How, then, can reporting engage them?
  • Big, hairy, thematic reporting: The conference spent much of its time focusing on how to report on pressing issues like human rights, climate change, gender equality, circular economy, and transparency and law enforcement. A high-level, generic report will no longer fit the bill (we have come a long way since an “Environmental Report” was the norm), but it is still unclear just how and where to report all of this information. In one report? In many? Online?
  • Big data is still the “it” thing, but what thing is it? Many people prophesying the future of reporting mentioned big data, noting that it will certainly save us all. Though, it’s not clear everyone understands what we are talking about when we use these words. In any case, the growing consensus among conference-goers was that what we need is not more (and certainly not bigger) data, but rather better, well-structured data, more relevant data, more easily accessible data, and more consistent data. Company initiatives like IBM Watson would argue that only then can we start to manipulate and use big data to improve and enhance sustainability reporting.
  • Open source all the things: Sustainability software is on the rise, with companies like CR360, Thinkstep, and eRevalue making a big push into the space, proposing diverse solutions from knowledge management to dynamic reporting to benchmarking and valuation. But new players like WikiRate aim to shake up the game by introducing open-source sustainability data platforms that allow anyone and everyone to rate companies from the comfort of their own internet browsers. Who is going to broker trust in this brave new world? All we can do is wait and see.

Want to learn more? BSR aims to publish a series of blogs this year on trends in sustainability reporting, so watch this space. We will also hold a session at the BSR Conference 2016, “Is Sustainability Reporting Becoming Obsolete?”, where we will debate whether using real-time, dynamic communications channels is the future of reporting or a move toward dangerous short-termism. Join us to understand the implications for your reporting strategy.