Business Growth & Strategy

Sustainability Questionnaires: 5 Tips on How To Respond

You’ve probably received a questionnaire about your organization’s Sustainability activities or performance.   It might say it’s a [comprehensive] “Sustainability Questionnaire.”  More likely, it may focus on a portion of Sustainability, such as energy efficiency, your use of minority-owned suppliers, reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, or use of conflict minerals.   You may have received it as an attachment to an email, a link in an email, in U.S. mail, or as an attachment to a Request for Proposal.   If you haven’t received one (you probably have and haven’t recognized it), you will.

Sustainability questionnaires may come from customers, landlords, investors, analysts, trade associations or other Stakeholders (“Surveyors” for this article).  They take time to complete, and can be another administrative burden.   They can also pose risk if not done properly.  If managed well, they can also provide opportunities for you to improve your business.  Here are five tips for managing Sustainability Questionnaires.

  1. Establish roles and responsibilities.   Sustainability Questionnaires may be sent to anybody in your company:  CEO; Sales; Operations; Human Relations; Safety; Environmental, Maintenance – even contractors working on your behalf.   Most people won’t know everything your company is doing.  For example, if you’ve installed a new HVAC system, Operations may know it is more efficient, Accounting may know how much the utility bill went down and how much less overtime was paid for Maintenance staff, and Environmental may know the reduction in GHG emissions.   Designate one person as responsible for Sustainability Questionnaires.  S/he can maintain an inventory of how questions were answered, and make the process more efficient and effective.
  1. Prioritize and engage.  The Surveyor is often not evident, or what they will be using them for.  Confirm the identity of the Surveyor, and that they are valid Stakeholders of yours.  Consider benefits and risks of completing Questionnaires if competitors will have access to your responses.  Prioritize your efforts; you may elect to decline to submit questionnaires to a random student working on an 8th grade paper.  You will probably decide to complete the questionnaire of a major client.  Once you have validated the Surveyor and decided to respond, engage with the Surveyor and try to enhance your relationship.  If they are asking you questions, it’s fair for you to ask them some!  How will the questionnaire be used?  Is there a scoring method, and can you have it?  What is the due date?  Will the Surveyor provide feedback on your response, and how your company compares to others?   You may not get a lot more information, but it is surprising how few people try.
  1. Be Responsive.   Provide a response for every question.  Even if the question is about something where you have no program, indicate that “we do not have a program for [item X] at this time”.   Failure to provide any response is often graded as a penalty.  Also, try to align your answers with the priorities of the Surveyor.  Check their website and their Sustainability report.  For example, if they emphasize corporate philanthropy, then emphasize your organizations donations and involvements in non-profits.
  1. Provide [only] supportable information.   When possible, provide data.  It’s better to say that “we reduced water use, based on gallons per $ thousand of sales, by 40% from 2008 to 2012” than to say “we work hard to reduce water use.”   You can find performance metrics in other companies’ Sustainability reports, or the Global Reporting Initiative.  Or, invent your own (“we have implemented one water-saving project per year for the last four years.”).   If you don’t have data, then tell a good story – but make sure you can support everything you say.  Avoid generalities (“our products are eco-friendly”) and irrelevant or misleading statements (“our office is in an area with many L.E.E.D.-certified buildings”).   However, take credit for as much as your organization has done (“our company sent eight employees to training on various aspects of Sustainability last year”) .
  1. Engage again.  After you respond, contact the Surveyor to find out how you did.  Learn how the Surveyor used responses.  Make sure the Surveyor understood your excellent responses, and did not unfairly penalize you for misinterpreted information.  Ask for tangible benefits, such as increased sales, preferential shelf space, qualifying for short list on a proposal, or investment or employment decision.   Surprisingly few companies do this; you may find that you can get creative in what you ask for – and how you can benefit as a result!

BONUS TIP:  Learn.  Anticipate.  Repeat.  Review feedback from Stakeholders and/or other professional resources to see where your organization is doing well.  See where you can use this to competitive advantage.  See where you are lagging, and evaluate whether improved performance would make sense for your company.  See how the questions change over time.  New questions could signal where your company should invest effort.  If some questions disappear, these issues may no longer warrant as much effort.  This is simply adopting the standard Plan-Do-Check-Act business principles or Enterprise Risk Management principles for one aspect of Sustainability.


Category: Business Growth & Strategy Innovation

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About the Author: Douglas Hileman

Douglas Hileman helps clients achieve value from sustainability as it applies to their business.  He helps clients with strategies, program improvements, performance metrics, business processes, training, and auditing.  He has worked for glo…

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  1. J. Lao

    November 6, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    the supportable information (#4) is key!

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