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Drive to encourage XBRL proves to be a global flop

March 2011

Hopes that companies will begin adopting eXtensible Business Reporting Language, or XBRL, in their corporate responsibility reports appear to be fading, with fewer than a handful having done so during the past two years.

XBRL – royalty-free software that digitally tags individual items of data in reports so that they can easily be transferred between computers and sorted – had been touted as ‘a new frontier for sustainability reporting’ by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), which would like sustainability reporters to adopt it as soon as possible (EP10, issue 2, p9).

However, the response from companies worldwide has been lukewarm. The GRI says it has ‘no information’ on how many businesses have used XBRL in their sustainability reports, but EP knows of only two – the Italian bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena and the Spanish bank Caja Navarra.

An international repository for XBRL CSR reports was supposed to have been set up by the Spanish Association of Accountancy and Business Administration (AECA) in 2009, but no longer appears to exist.

XBRL was initially developed for transmitting financial information, particularly to and from stock exchanges. This may explain why the only two identified users for non-financial reporting are banks that are familiar with the language.

Supporters of XBRL say it should help sustainability report readers to extract the specific data they want, allowing greater comparability across companies and sectors.

The GRI has worked on the use of XBRL to manage corporate non-financial data since 2006, and has compiled a dictionary of suggested elements for tagging information, known as a ‘taxonomy’. Another taxonomy for CSR reporting has been created by AECA.

Critics, however, believe the GRI has not done enough to support greater take-up.

Daniel Roberts, a sustainability specialist at RAAS Consulting and a past chairman of the XBRL US steering committee, said: ‘While there has been lots of lip service paid to CSR and XBRL, there is no realistic delivery as yet.

‘The GRI has talked about XBRL – and said how important it is – for a number of years. Unfortunately, it has done nothing beyond the first draft version of a GRI taxonomy that was developed for it by volunteer labour from one of the major accounting firms in 2006.’

Paul Scott, director of CorporateRegister.com, which keeps a huge online database of corporate responsibility reports, said XBRL take-up has been ‘absolutely minimal, and so scanty that we don’t yet bother to track it’.

He added: ‘The GRI were premature in supporting XBRL. They first developed their taxonomy back in 2006 and it must have taken time and money to do so. But companies aren’t using this format as a mainstream activity even for normal business accounting yet, despite the hype.

‘There’s no benefit to them reporting using XBRL for CSR reports. We feel that the GRI once again decided what it thought was good for companies, rather than consulting corporate stakeholders.’

Scott observed that although the XBRL format is ideal for investors and analysts, ‘most of those we speak to don’t read CSR reports, even if they are sent to them directly’. There was, therefore, ‘little advantage’ in adopting the XBRL route.

He added: ‘If the GRI are intent on pursuing XBRL, a more effective strategy would be to convince investors and analysts that this is useful for them, thereby encouraging a “pull” from this audience on corporate investor relations and on those responsible for reporting. Just pushing is not going to work.’

The GRI said last year that it was examining its XBRL stance as part of a wider strategic review. One insider told EP there were private concerns about the low take-up rate.

Despite the slow movement on XBRL, however, the number of companies using software to monitor sustainability performance has risen by 50 per cent in recent years, according to new research from the GRI.

It says that between 2006 and 2010 the growth of sustainability reporting generally has been outstripped by the introduction of specialist software and digital reporting. Many businesses are now ‘reliant’ on software from suppliers such as EnviroCIP, Microsoft and SAP to produce sustainability reports. The GRI says it will take this into account when drawing up the next generation of its reporting guidelines.




Global Reporting Initiative | Global | Sustainability

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