Ethical Performance
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GRI takes another shot at producing XBRL guide

July 2011

An attempt is to be made to revive interest in the use of eXtensible Business Reporting Language, or XBRL, in sustainability reporting.

The Global Reporting Initiative and Deloitte have come together to start work on producing a fresh  XBRL ‘taxonomy’, which will provide a dictionary of suggested elements for tagging information in sustainability reports. Once this is done, organizations can digitally tag individual data in reports so that analysts can easily extract and sort the exact bits of information they need by computer.

Despite the GRI’s urgings, the use of XBRL has not taken off among sustainability reporters, partly because of complaints that there had been no useable taxonomy with which they could get started. The GRI did produce a taxonomy in 2006, but many of those who have tried to use it have complained that it was only a draft version and  not up to the job. GRI’s decision to produce a ‘new’ taxonomy with Deloitte therefore amounts to a tacit acknowledgement that its previous attempt had not delivered the goods.

At a meeting with Deloitte last month it agreed to begin work on publishing a taxonomy that will be compatible with the latest version of the GRI’s reporting guidelines. Deloitte, which already uses XBRL for its financial reports and plans to harness it for its sustainability reporting, will be a pilot user of the new taxonomy when it emerges.

XBRL had been touted as ‘a new frontier for sustainability reporting’ by the GRI, which would like sustainability reporters to adopt it as soon as possible (EP10, issue 2, p9). But only two companies – both banks – have attempted it, and with poor results.

One US-based XBRL expert told EP: ‘The GRI’s current taxonomy is unfinished, so no one could possibly have used it to create an XBRL version of a GRI-format sustainability report. The most important part remains to be done—creating numeric fields for GRI key performance indicators. Everything in the current taxonomy is a text field. Imagine creating a spreadsheet that doesn’t work with numbers. That’s the GRI’s taxonomy.’

The source added: ‘The Italian bank, Banca Monte Paschi dei Siena, tried to use the GRI’s taxonomy and came up short because it could only tag non-numeric GRI indicators. I also tried to create a sample XBRL report from a company’s sustainability report, and after a week of working on it I realized that the GRI’s taxonomy is unfinished. So the GRI has been touting its XBRL taxonomy for years even though it’s of no use.’

XBRL was initially developed for transmitting financial information, particularly to and from stock exchanges. Its supporters say it should help sustainability report readers extract the specific data they want, allowing comparability across companies and sectors.

Global Reporting Initiative | Global | Sustainability

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