Do people actually act on sustainability research reports?

Do people actually act on sustainability research reports?

I always wonder how industry sustainability research reports influence company activities. Do sustainability professionals peruse the latest reports, then throw them to the side? Do they spur internal conversations, progress the dialogue and open the company to pursuing even further opportunities? Do they inform the next wave of decisions?

In March, the Retail Industry Leaders Association released its second Retail Sustainability Report, developed in partnership with Ernst & Young. We wanted to develop a report used by industry players to assess their efforts against those of others in the industry. The report, like all of RILA’s sustainability initiatives, is observational in nature and was designed to provide retailers with information on how their peers approach sustainability efforts.

Now that the report has been available to the public for five months, we were interested in reviewing all the changes and progress the report has engendered. To accomplish this, we surveyed more than 100 people who downloaded and read this year’s report, specifically asking them how they have benefitted from using it.

What we found was very interesting.

For the retailers who have reviewed the report, 74 percent have used it to benchmark against their peers, 63 percent have shared the report with colleagues within their own organization and 58 percent have shared the report’s findings with their senior management. Almost half the retailers who responded use the report to inform internal decision-making about their sustainability programs.

Manufacturers, a key stakeholder to the retail industry, also downloaded and used the report. Of the manufacturers who responded, 71 percent used the findings to inform their sustainability work, 65 percent shared the findings with their company’s senior management, an equal number used it to inform internal decision-making and more than half shared the report’s findings with colleagues inside their own organization.

Consultants and other service providers also gained valuable insights from the report. A staggering 90 percent of consultants mentioned that they used the report’s findings to learn about future trends in retail sustainability, and 70 percent indicated that the report will help inform the way they interact with their clients.

We also asked all readers which issues were most important to them or their organizations. It was interesting to learn that measuring sustainability (at 76 percent of responses) was the issue in which readers were most interested. After that came reporting on sustainability activities (69 percent), planning for sustainability (62 percent), supply chain operations (52 percent) and sustainability team organizational structures (44 percent).

These important insights can prepare organizations for developing successful future reports. Namely, be sure to:

  • Define your objectives. Industry research reports blossom into conversation and action. It is crucial to conceptualize a report with an eye toward potential actions that the report may foster. Doing so will guide the report’s visuals, layout, content and research.
  • Organize content to spur conversation. Every time a report — or quotes, trends, data, etc. from the report — is forwarded within the organization or externally to clients, partners or others, it spurs conversation. Develop targeted content that is made for discussion.
  • Modularize the content. Different audiences have different needs. In retail, real estate teams will want to read about their peers’ facilities efforts, not the efforts of merchandising teams; communications teams will not care about specific energy technology technical specifications. The content should be modular so that the report’s components can be divided to target specific audiences.
  • Read it through the eyes of many stakeholders. Sustainability is a multi-stakeholder sport. Retailers are concerned about their own operations, as well as their suppliers, consumers, investors, activists, the government and even others still. Any report that reaches such a wide variety of stakeholders should be accessible and valuable to those stakeholders, and should consider any concerns that they may have with the research findings.

RILA will continue to develop resources, materials and research that track the progress of retail sustainability efforts and update the industry about these important trends.

To join in the conversation, attend this year’s RILA Retail Sustainability Conference, Sept. 30-Oct. 3 in Orlando, Fla.

Photocollage by GreenBiz Group