Let’s Put More Effort into Sustainability and Less into Surveys

Kim Bach Vu
Sustainability/Corporate Responsibility Associate
TE Connectivity (Tyco Electronics)

The growth in acceptance and popularity for corporate responsibility and sustainability has propelled many companies to look into their own operations and of their supply chains. This has created a need to measure and disclose their sustainability efforts both internally and externally. The external audience might vary by industry and position of the supply chain, some external stakeholders that companies engage with are investors, customers, non-governmental organizations, and suppliers to name a few. The increasing scrutiny of corporate responsibility efforts by investment efforts has left too many different types of surveys, from Dow Jones Sustainability Index to Vigeo. Furthermore, many companies that engage in their suppliers also have sustainability surveys. While one might assume that this could total to a handful of surveys a year, business to business companies could see much more than that. If you think about a large B2B that has 50,000 customers, even if only 1% of their customers request sustainability information, that is 500 surveys each year. You can certainly prioritize by revenue with the customer, length of survey, etc., but it is not a surprise that we are now seeing large companies with dedicated staff members who have the sole responsibility of responding to external sustainability surveys.

On top of what our industry is now commonly referring to as survey fatigue, which is the tiredness of responding to redundant surveys, the amount of surveys can cause other issues. For example, the metrics are not always exactly the same, so the responder is then required to get additional information or re-calculate different figures. Sometimes the scope of time is different. You can report your greenhouse gas emissions by our fiscal year and by calendar year, but you might have someone ask for it in their fiscal year. While this might seem small, it creates a much larger problem—we are not all speaking the same language.

Corporate social responsibility, sustainability, citizenship, among many terms is a somewhat new function. However, unlike social media, which is also a new field, we still haven’t even had a universal name for it in the corporate world. From the very beginning, we are already on different pages. When we add in different metrics, ways to measure metrics, scopes, boundaries, and ways we define industries, it becomes obvious why we have so many different surveys to begin with. We are not even all asking and reporting the same type of information. This is where the real problems begin. If we are not all measuring the same metrics, we end up not having an apples to apples comparison. It is very difficult to know what information gets included in survey responses unless definition and terms are clear. You can still run into many gray areas, especially when it comes to human resources questions like, “What is the average salary for a female executive?” The term executive varies greatly by company size and industry. How do we feel like we can rank different companies if the metrics are not exactly the same?

The most feasible solution at the current moment would be to follow Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards and boundaries. From there, companies can use this to send to their investors, customers, and other requestors. While this might be simple, it still will present its challenges because some standards like GRI, while thorough, might not provide all the information that some of these companies are looking for.

Maybe we should just all decide what we should call our field before going into sustainability metrics, surveys, and fatigue.

Posted April 16, 2014 in CR Blogin Sustainability