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Sustainability Surveys: Buried Under the Best of Intentions

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Posted on May 16, 2011

Overkill. By definition it’s “an excess of something beyond what is required or suitable for a particular purpose.”

Often, this excess is negative. It’s Axe Body Spray at a middle-school dance. It’s that Top 40 song that has been played three times in the last hour. It’s wall-to-wall coverage of the latest celebrity train wreck — Charlie Sheen’s latest absurd utterance or Lindsay Lohan’s most recent jail sentence (no Lindsay, it didn’t just fall into your purse).

It’s enough to provoke even the most patient among us to scream “enough!”

In the sustainability world, one of the most significant sources of overkill — second only perhaps to the use of the word “green” — is the proliferation of sustainability surveys. These surveys come from a wide variety of sources — research firms, investor agencies, customers, the media and nonprofits.

By and large, these groups have the best of intentions. They’re looking to gather important Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) data by which to rate a company’s performance in these areas. It is an important movement in reaction to the realization that financial data alone is insufficient in capturing the holistic and long-term health of a company.

Best of intentions don’t always translate into effective processes. In this case, it’s becoming too much of a good thing. Survey responders are feeling overwhelmed and fatigued. Any given company can be inundated with hundreds of survey requests each year, and it seems that the big name, surveys like Dow Jones Sustainability Index and the Carbon Disclosure Project’s Investor Survey, always tend to fall around the same time each year … right about now.

There’s some overlap in the data requested by all the surveys, but not enough. Either way, it means you still actually need to fill the whole thing out, run it up and down and back up again the approval chain of your company, and then submit it.

So what’s the solution? I recently attended the NAEM Sustainability Metrics conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. During the day-long workshop, we heard from groups on both sides of the survey process. Most attendees agreed — including the investor ranking firms who make their money on gathering and packaging this data — that a central repository of ESG data would be preferential for everyone.

This would free up time for the analysts to focus on just that — analysis of the data. Instead of competing on how much data they can get each company to disclose, they could compete on the various ways to slice and dice it and the identification of the truest indicators of long-term company health and success.

And companies? Well, if companies could enter their data into one source, one that would fill out all these forms and feed all of these firms, it would free up a handful of people to actually focus on enacting the sustainability efforts that will make a difference in improving this data.

It is a realistic future, but not yet a reality. So how do companies cope in the meantime? They must prioritize. With some soul-searching, companies need to determine which audiences are most important to them and which surveys matter to that audience. Also, a company should identify the data and indicators that are most meaningful to their company.

This data — guided by the Global Reporting Initiative framework — should comprise your sustainability report and be easily accessible to those looking for it (consider a KPI table or frequently asked questions section).

At the end of the day, both sides are still trying to make the information gathering process more efficient; and by working together, can accomplish this. That, in the end, will make sustainability data collection process more, well, sustainable … for everyone.

This post also appeared on Greenbiz.com  on May 16.

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