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A voice for sustainable development: the Global Reporting Initiative as discursive resource

Alon Lischinsky
Umeå Universitet
Alon Lischinsky
Umeå Universitet
Open Panel

Abstract

In the 12 years since its conception, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) has doubtlessly become the leading framework for voluntary sustainability reporting (Brown, de Jong & Lessidrenska 2007). Its institutionalisation has granted considerable recognition, prestige and influence to the relatively new goal of accountability and transparency in corporate social and environmental performance (Etzion & Ferraro 2006). The GRI guidelines have been especially applauded for including from the start a wide range of stakeholders with different collective interests, thus democratising the reporting process (REF). This democratisation included the establishment of reporting principles that would ensure the comprehensibility and usefulness of information for the entire range of stakeholders (GRI 2006). However, in the actual design of the GRI Guidelines the explanation of these principles takes a back seat to the selection of standard disclosures and metrics. Despite the key role of rhetorical and generic structure in facilitating the acquisition and interpretation of information (van Dijk & Kintsch 1983; Zwaan 1994), the Guidelines offer only minimal explicit orientation in this regard. This has led some researchers (e.g., Archel, Fernández & Larringa 2008) to suggest that GRI compliance is more often a tool for reputation management than a genuine standard for reporting practice. In this paper, I employ discourse analytic techniques to explore how references to GRI and the Guidelines are rhetorically used in a corpus of 50 sustainability reports. Drawing on the genre model developed by Skulstad (2002, 2008), I analyse explicit markers of rhetorical structure to provide linguistic evidence for criticisms of the GRI.