2020 is the year in which Utrecht University published a sustainability monitor, in line with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Together with Sustainalize, the university applied the GRI guidelines to report on its impact in a reliable, uniform, and professional way. This is consistent with its mission to create a more sustainable society by implementing knowledge. In this case, Mark Kauw, Project Manager Sustainability at Utrecht University, and our Sustainalize colleague Lot Elshuis elaborate on the challenges and lessons that arise while reporting in line with GRI.

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The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is a globally accepted and widely used method that organizations use to report on non-financial information, such as environmental impact, social aspects, and governance design. It consists of several guidelines that can help organizations to communicate more transparent about non-financial information. ________________________________________________________________________________________________

Mark is Project Manager Sustainability at Utrecht University. He works on projects that contribute to making the university more sustainable. With the Sustainability Programme as a forerunner, the university wants to be an agent of change in the transition to a sustainable society. How do you manage this correctly as an organization – specifically as a university?

Publishing something that is supported by everyone
Although the GRI criteria have been developed for companies, the guidelines provide the university with sufficient guidance in the process of reporting.  “GRI is a globally accepted tool, which ensures that we can report transparently,” Mark says. “The main challenge is the field of tension between following the GRI guidelines and creating something that everyone supports. Plus, the question of whether people want to read such a report when it is published.” Lot adds: “The guidelines are quite ‘stiff’. It is a long list of criteria that every organization should be able to report on. If you write a report purely based on the GRI guidelines, it will contain the most important non-financial information. However, this entails the risk that certain stakeholders may not find it interesting enough to read,” Lot explains. “But that went well this year in Utrecht University’s sustainability monitor.  Especially the online version is fun and accessible to read.”

“Within two years Utrecht University has built up a transparent and complete sustainability monitor, thanks to the knowledge and experience of Susan and Lot.” – Mark Kauw (Utrecht University)

 Yet it remains a challenge to involve certain stakeholders, especially students. Even though the topics are more accessible, students generally do not find it very interesting. “Engaging students in such a monitor is important to us. We want a monitor that is made both by and for them,” Mark explains. “The ultimate goal is that students, in addition to scientists, are involved in the process of finding solutions to sustainability issues.”

Report clearly and critically
Utrecht University aspires to be even more critical and clear in the next annual report. “The whole reason why you make such a monitor is, of course, that the university improves on sustainability. It is relatively easy to determine which aspects are not doing well. The next step remains tricky; especially when it comes to who is going to take action,” Mark explains. Lot and Mark conclude that it seems a lot simpler when you look at the GRI criteria on paper: you have a certain criterium, you implement it, then you evaluate whether the intended result has been achieved and decide how to proceed. In practice, however, it’s much more complex. “The harsh reality is that you are then confronted with a complicated bureaucratic organization in which it is difficult to determine who is responsible for what,” Mark elaborates. And yet, the report is a great way for an organization to gain insight and create an overview of its performance. This helps you to start a conversation and evaluate it. Which makes this an essential part of the management cycle to focus on sustainability.

The next steps towards a sustainable future
The university will focus on assigning responsibilities. “Engaging with stakeholders may help both the current Sustainability Programme and the topic owners (staff that is responsible for the sustainability themes) to feel more ownership. I believe that is especially important,” Mark says. “A better implementation process mainly lies in the involvement of internal stakeholders. Therefore, it is important that we, as the Sustainability Programme, are actively involved in the selection of stakeholders.” In the future, the university will take a critical look at the selection of stakeholders, as well as at the various sustainability themes. “It will be interesting to see to what extent the importance of themes will be shifting, also considering the impact of COVID-19. For example, students are now more worried about online lectures than before,” Lot ends.

“When monitoring real-time data, your putting all your cards on the table.”- Mark Kauw (Utrecht University)

According to Mark, setting up a live dashboard is an interesting development. “The ultimate goal is a monitor in which you can enter real-time data, considering that we want to talk about sustainability all year round.” For now, it is still uncertain what this will look like, and this will mainly depend on the available facts and figures. Hence, it can also become a monthly update, but it is certainly going to be different than reporting on sustainability once a year.

The Sustainability Monitor
For two years now, Utrecht University has been publishing a sustainability monitor in addition to its regular annual report. This monitor investigates its own annual sustainability activities and progress. It enables directors and staff to steer more effectively towards results. For external stakeholders, the monitor shows where the university currently stands and what will change in the coming years.

Interested? Read more about the Sustainability Monitor of Utrecht University here.