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GreenBiz Intelligence Panel

Survey of surveys 2012: Are companies just checking the box?

If someone conducted a survey on surveys, would anyone respond?

We just completed one — an effort to assess how many sustainability-related surveys companies are receiving, how much time they’re spending on responding to them, the tools they use, and other things. The good news: We got a solid response. The bad news: Companies are pretty grumpy on the topic.

When we conducted our first “survey of surveys” almost two years ago, the members of our GreenBiz Intelligence Panel provided a consistent response. “There are too many surveys, they need to be standardized, and there’s a frustrating lack of transparency in the different methodologies” (You can read more here).

Alas, this year’s results show that very little has changed as socially responsible investor groups, NGOs, and— perhaps most vexing, customers — keep sending out questionnaires. Sustainability executives are caught in a bind,. They can’t not respond, but they have serious questions about how the information will be used, if at all.

Our survey, conducted between late August and early September, garnered 341 responses, with 76 percent from companies with annual revenues of more than $1 billion (which we define as "large companies"). While little has changed in terms of the nature of surveys being received by businesses large and small, we were able to gain new insights into the various requests sustainability professionals must consider when allocating precious staff and time to these efforts.

A Strategy for Customer Surveys: Ask Backwards

An ironic twist on survey responders’ frustrations is that many of the companies that complain about the effectiveness of surveys are turning around and surveying their own supply-chain partners. One-fourth of survey respondents indicated that their companies respond to more than 25 customer surveys and 11 percent respond to more than 100 customer surveys.

Figure 1: Three sectors represent half of the responding companies with revenues over $1 billion

Some sectors are surveyed more than others. Forty-four percent of technology companies, 43 percent of those providing basic materials (such as chemicals, oil and gas, and other extractive industries), 31 percent of healthcare, and 29 percent of industrial goods manufacturers responded to more than 25 surveys. While some sectors are clearly inundated with customer surveys, others are close to exempt. Nearly half of the retailers received no requests and another 35 percent received fewer than five.

In several cases, though, the companies that are surveyed the most are also those more actively surveying their suppliers. For example, technology companies responded to more surveys but have also sent the most surveys to their suppliers. Retailers and healthcare companies rank second and third in terms of surveying their suppliers. While not explicitly identified in survey responses, these three sectors also account for the most concerted industry initiatives in terms of supply-chain management.

Figure 2: Percentage of companies within a sector that responded to more than 25 customer surveys

Coalitions such as the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition in the technology sector and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, consisting of retailers, brand-name apparel manufacturers, and other suppliers, are working to create common standards to help improve their suppliers’ performance, which should in turn reduce their suppliers’ survey fatigue.

Pressure Points? Ratings and Rankings and SRIs

Once again, more than half of companies surveyed (53 percent) are filling out up to 10 surveys from independent groups. Retailers and real estate firms fill out the fewest (53 percent and 67 percent respectively). As illustrated in Figure 3, the top three surveys companies participate in remains unchanged.

There are important differences, though, when considering which sectors prioritize these various surveys. Seventy-five percent or more of companies in six sectors respond to the CDP Climate Change and Emissions survey: Healthcare (85 percent), Financial Services (83 percent), Real Estate (83 percent), Basic Materials (81 percent), Technology (76 percent), and Industrial Goods (75 percent).

Alternately, only companies in four sectors responded to the Climate Counts survey: Technology (21 percent), Consumer Goods (18 percent), Retail (18 percent), and Service Providers (15 percent). It should be noted, however, that Climate Counts focuses only on consumer-branded companies.

Figure 3: Surveys responded to by the greatest number of companies

These sectoral differences in terms of which companies respond to which surveys are an indicator of where pressure to respond originates. Climate Counts can affect brand presence with consumers, whereas CDP is more likely to impact B2B brand equity with supply-chain trading partners.

One big challenge are the unaligned interests between the surveyers and the surveyed. Each survey seeks to stress its influence and justify its importance, while those responding are more interested in standardization that reduces their effort to respond and normalizes how their company is evaluated not just overall, but within its competitive sector.

First Responders – Taking the Lead in Providing Information

In the past two years, there have been a few shifts in terms of which department is taking the lead in managing a company’s response to sustainability surveys. The Environmental, Health & Safety (EHS) department’s efforts in managing the response decreased from 27 percent in 2010 to 17 percent this year. Significant decreases in participation also came from marketing and communications departments (from 14 percent to 10 percent) and investor relations (from 12 percent to 6 percent).

The largest increase in participation comes from “whoever receives the request,” jumping from 3 percent in 2010 to 8 percent today. While a 5 percentage point jump may not seem like a big shift, it could reflect increased sustainability efforts becoming more embedded in a company’s operations. It also could reflect that companies don't have a standard routing plan when surveys come in the door.

In terms of technology, spreadsheets are still leading the way as the most utilized tool for collecting data and compiling responses. No software package captured more than 3 percent of the responses, however the OneReport platform was identified by 7 percent of those responding and many panel members called out the Sedex Self Assessment Questionnaire as a step in the right direction while also noting “a public standard would be best.”

Whether using spreadsheets or packaged software, responding to surveys is time consuming. Twenty-seven percent of those we surveyed noted that their company invested more than 500 hours a year in responding to surveys. When we looked at the hours expended within each industry, there is no clear trend. In each of the industry sectors we surveyed, there were companies on either end of the spectrum in terms of time spent responding to surveys. There is no one sector where more time is spent answering surveys than another.

Customers are King

The motivations that drive sustainability departments to respond to surveys about their company and its actions have not changed since our 2010 survey. For companies with revenues greater than $1 billion, customer interest (36 percent), overall brand recognition (19 percent), and sector leadership (17 percent) are still the top three drivers.

Customer interest for large companies rose in importance, from 28 percent in 2010 to 36 percent in 2012, while sector leadership grew from 13 percent to 17 percent. Panel members continue to rank publicity seeking as a very low priority (3 percent).

Figure 4: Customers are king for both large and small companies.

For smaller companies, customers are certainly the key reason to respond to surveys, as 26 percent named that as one of the top three reasons to respond. The other motivations for smaller companies are distinctly different from their larger brethren. Twenty-five percent of smaller companies identify access to research as very important (versus just one percent of large companies) while 10 percent of smaller companies cite benchmarking as important (8 percent of large companies indicated benchmarking as important).

Next page: Complaints, Suggestions, and Optimism

We Couldn’t Say It Better Ourselves: Complaints, Suggestions, and Optimism?

At the conclusion of our survey, we provided a platform for our panel members to respond. The comments can be categorized as complaints, suggestions, and optimism.

  • Complaints. Most of the complaints cited the cumbersome process and asked whether requestors (usually procurement departments) really make use of data or whether it is a "check the box" activity. One of our panel members cried, “Help!   So many surveys ask questions that are buried in the weeds and miss the big impactful questions.  The percentage reduction in our cardboard packaging is barely a decimal point in our LCAs.  But no one asks about dematerialization of our highest embodied-energy materials.  These surveys often miss asking about the biggest changes that we have made to reduce our environmental impacts.  Help them see the forest for the trees.”
  • Suggestions. Many panel members would like to see more transparency and a consolidation of surveys. Many of the suggestions were best summarized by a panelist who, would like to see “one master survey that captures all key ESG [environmental, social, and governance] data of interest to key stakeholders groups, including ESG rating firms, NGOs, customers, suppliers, etc.  Given the fact that the materiality of various ESG issues will vary by sector, such a survey would probably have to be sector-specific, or have sector-specific sub-sections, in order to enable meaningful comparisons to be made.”
  • Optimism? It may be too strong a word, but a number of panelists look forward to the eventual maturing of standardized sustainability reporting to where the usefulness of surveys goes away.  As one panelist noted, “In the developmental lifecycle, the current state of sustainability surveys could be considered ‘early teens’ — somewhat knows what he/she wants but doesn't understand either what to do with it or realize that there are better ways to get it.”

It’s clear that everyone is looking for this teenager to grow up.

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