What's the value of surveys to companies? Just ask.

Q: Responding to the mushrooming number of surveys sent to companies by their customers and stakeholders is:

a) a distraction from the daily business of sustainability professionals

b) the price of doing business in the age of transparency

c) a valuable catalyst for creating change inside companies

d) all of the above

A. I’m going to go with D.

It’s become an article of faith that to be a sustainability professional in a large company is to spend a good part of your day filling out surveys. In 2010, when GreenBiz conducted — well, a survey of companies to gauge how many surveys they fill out, we found that some respond to more than 300 a year — more than one per business day. That was nearly two years ago. There’s a decent chance that number has increased. The rise of these external queries even has given birth to a term among sustainability professionals: "survey fatigue."

Nearly everyone wants to know something: customers, socially responsible investors, activist groups, Wall Street analysts, ratings groups, media organizations, government agencies, and others. They want to know company policies, commitments, and performance on a wide range of issues, from environmental compliance to human rights practices of suppliers. They want anything form high-level overviews to excruciatingly detailed drill-downs on a product-by-product or plant-by-plant basis. Some companies have full-time employees who do nothing but respond to such queries.

Is this trip really necessary? It appears that it is. Sustainability professionals say they find value in responding to surveys, especially those from customers. It helps them understand evolving customer needs, market shifts, and gaps in their own companies. It provides the basis for evaluating current programs. It helps them, to be blunt, justify their existence.

This was driven home recently at a meeting of the GreenBiz Executive Network, GreenBiz Group’s peer-to-peer learning forum for sustainability executives from large companies. At the meeting, members discussed the surveys they use for their suppliers — and the ones they receive from customers and others.

During that conversation, Barry Dambach, Senior Director, Global EHS & Sustainability at Alcatel-Lucent, the Paris-based telecommunications equipment company, revealed that in 2011 his company responded to 174 such queries, compared to 149 the previous year and 95 in 2007. Dambach noted that these numbers represent only the surveys “that we help support or people tell us about” — not, for example, when a sales rep provides environmental data directly to a customer. Dambach estimated that responding to these consumed about 20 percent of the time of his 10-person department, the equivalent of two full-time jobs.

Next page: From simple to not-so-simple