How to navigate sustainability frameworks and standards

January 24, 2022
Article

The difference between frameworks, disclosures, certifications, and assessments.

Climate change, emissions accounting, and other sustainability issues are difficult to tackle in their own right. Layer in the robust and complex landscape that has quickly emerged around sustainability reporting and ESG standards and your head could be left spinning.

Whether you’re just starting your sustainability journey or you’re a seasoned pro, the 600+ sustainability standards, certifications, and frameworks begin to feel like an acronym soup.

Sustain.Life helps map your sustainability strategies to five leading standards: UNGC, SDGs, GRI, TRUE Zero Waste, and B Corp.

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In this post, I’ll make things a bit more digestible by explaining why you might want to pursue a third-party standard in the first place. I'll also share some points about how to select what’s right for your business while navigating the vast sustainability landscape.  

The difference between frameworks, disclosures, certifications, and assessments

First, let’s look at the distinctions between frameworks, disclosures, certifications, and assessments so you can choose which ones you want to pursue.

Frameworks

Think of sustainability reporting frameworks as principle- and topic-based guidance that helps structure decision-making and share information. These are strategic guidelines that tell you how to approach sustainability.
Examples
: United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Disclosures

Detailed, replicable reporting standards that position metrics around specific topics like economic, environmental, and social impact. Think of these as guardrails that govern what to report and how to organize sustainability information thematically.
Examples: GRI, CDP

Certifications

Third-party recognition awarded based on a set of standards, often theme-specific and targeted for products, buildings, or parts of your business.
Examples
: TRUE Zero Waste, B Corp  

Assessments

Questionnaires or surveys that set benchmarks based on performance or industry averages. These are often part of certifications, like B Corp, or sustainability disclosure reporting processes, like CDP. In the case of B Corp, overall scores from the assessments are public; however, some assessments, like CDP, give the option to share only with requesting investors.  
Examples
: B Lab Assessment (required to pursue B Corp certification), CDP questionnaires  

Five top sustainability frameworks, disclosures, certifications, and assessments  

Determining which sustainability standard best suits your organization is a formidable task. Do you want to prioritize risk management? Guidance? Opportunities for recognition? Climate-related financial disclosures? Methodologies to help you align business practices to international standards and customer expectations? If you don't know yet, that's OK—we’ve summarized the top five industry-agnostic (and global) sustainability reporting standards and frameworks.  

UNGC logo

UNGC

Type: Integrated reporting framework

Why you should care: The Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact (UNGC) are often the first step in corporate social responsibility (CSR). The low barrier for entry makes it a common framework to support ethical business practices for people and the planet.

Commonly used by: Companies, NGOs, business associations, labor organizations, universities, foundations, public-sector organizations, cities

Effort required: Low effort, low technical knowledge

Associated costs: $2,500–$30,000 per year, depending on annual revenue and country

The UN Global Compact (UNGC) is a principle-based approach to corporate sustainability. Its mission: advance responsible business practices and broad societal goals through collaboration and innovation. The Ten Principles set minimum standards for human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption. As the largest corporate sustainability initiative globally—with more than 10,000 businesses in 160+ countries, in addition to NGOs, universities, public sector organizations, and governments—the UNGC is a low-barrier, first step in corporate social responsibility (CSR). Prospective members select from a signatory or more engaged participant tier to access guidance, training, tools, and a global community of stakeholders in service of sustainability objectives from the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

SDGs logo

SDGs

Type: Framework

Why you should care: Building on the values promoted by the UNGC, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) guide corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals alongside aspirational long-term targets.

Commonly used by: Everyone from large multi-national organizations and governments to individuals. Anyone can use the SDGs to make progress against shared sustainability goals.

Effort required: High effort, low-to-medium technical knowledge

Associated costs: Free

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the foundation of the United Nations 2030 Agenda to eradicate poverty, protect the planet, and achieve peace and prosperity for all. Whereas the UNGC asks companies to act responsibly, the SDGs go further. It asks companies to pursue opportunities that solve societal challenges through innovation and collaboration. Initially directed towards governments to inform national policies, the SDGs have since been widely adopted by businesses seeking to align with future-forward regulatory environments. The 17 SDGs contain 169 targets for inclusive, sustainable growth. They deliver long-term social, environmental, and economic value for investors and the planet across climate, poverty, education, sanitation, infrastructure, equality, and responsible consumption and production.

GRI logo

GRI

Type: Disclosure

Why you should care: Allows businesses to publicly disclose ESG topics across comparable criteria, independent of financial performance information required by other accounting disclosures. (Reporting recommendations and Guidance for each Disclosure can be found in the GRI Standards or topic-specific GRI Standards.)

Commonly used by: Companies, public-sector organizations, universities, non-profits

Effort required: High effort, low-to-high technical knowledge (depending on the complexity of your operation)

Associated costs: Free

Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is the first and most trusted global standard for sustainability reporting. It is the official framework of the UN Global Compact, making it the default system for organizations worldwide to deliver transparent and accountable ESG disclosures. Employed across public and private companies, government agencies, cities, universities, and non-profits, GRI allows for the most comprehensive impact reporting across economic, environmental, and social indicators. GRI’s three Universal Standards provide the foundation for corporate reporting through central principles and requirements, disclosures around management approaches, and guidelines for identifying material topics. Businesses can then select from topic-specific standards that span economic, environmental, and social impact, as well as standards designed to help identify a sector’s most significant impacts and reflect stakeholder expectations for sustainability reporting.

TRUE logo

TRUE

Type: Certification

Why you should care: Any business that centers its space and events strategy around zero waste should explore TRUE, the only waste-centric certification standard.

Commonly used by: Companies, schools and universities, public-sector organizations, non-profits

Effort required: Medium-to-high effort, low technical knowledge

Associated costs: $7,200 for USGBC members with less than 250,000 square feet, up to $18,000 for non-members with facilities up to 1M square feet

Total Resource Use and Efficiency (TRUE) is the leading global certification standard for zero waste for facilities, construction sites, and events. It takes a systems approach to change how material flows through society. Its goal: zero waste. By encouraging the redesign of resource lifecycles—so all products get reused in a circular economy—TRUE-certified spaces and events divert a minimum of 90% of all non-hazardous solid waste from the landfill, incineration (waste-to-energy), and the environment. Projects must meet seven minimum requirements and achieve at least 31 of 81 total points. An optional precertification path recognizes applications that use core actions to start their zero-waste journey (e.g., adopting policies and setting targets).

B Corp logo

B Corp

Type: Certification

Why you should care: Any business that provides a public benefit can pursue B Corp. This rigorous and respected third-party certification demonstrates that the highest level of environmental and social standards are core to your business.

Commonly used by: Companies

Effort required: High effort, low technical knowledge

Associated costs: The B Impact Assessment tool is free, while B Corp Certification ranges from $1,000–$50,000+ per year

A certified B Corp is a for-profit company whose mission includes a public benefit. Certification is, in part, based on verified social and environmental performance from the B Impact Assessment, a rigorous evaluation of a company’s impact on workers, community, environment, and customers. Certified B Corps must make a legal update to their Articles of Incorporation, reincorporating as a benefit corporation (currently available in 35 states), or make other structural changes. They must also change their corporate governance structure to be accountable to all stakeholders—workers, the community, and customers—not just shareholders. B Corps must update their B Impact Assessment and verify their score every three years to maintain certification. More than 3,900 companies in 70 countries are certified B Corps. Benefits include a credible public showcase of responsible business practices, which attract employees and customers alike, additional value creation, and access to the B Corp community of certified companies.

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Author
Alyssa Rade
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The takeaway

There are 600+ sustainability standards, certifications, and frameworks, each with their own set of benefits.