Spring flowers are popping up everywhere…and so are sustainability reporting requests!  If you are in the supply chain of a large company, chances are you have received at least one, if not numerous, different requests for sustainability information from customers.  If your company is on larger side, you may have also received requests from investors and/or from organizations that rate companies on their sustainability such as Newsweek (for their Green Rankings), Dow Jones Sustainability Index, or Sustainalytics.

Responding to sustainability requests is a time and resource intensive endeavor.  It also raises numerous questions about what the company is currently doing, should be doing, what you can or can’t talk about, etc. Often, companies find themselves with no clear answers on how to triage these requests, who should respond to them, how to gather the information efficiently, and how to craft the best responses. 

Regardless of where you are in your sustainability journey or how many requests you get, there are some strategies you can use so that you are driving your response strategy and it’s not driving you (crazy).

1.     Do Your Research:  Take some time to look at all the requests you are getting.  Research each of the organizations requesting information from you.  Understand why they are requesting information from you and exactly what they will do with it.  (Will they make it public, or is it just for internal purposes?)  If you can, identify the type of person or organization that will use the information about you and for what purposes.   Also, try to get a sense of the organization’s credibility as a source.   Are they reliable and well regarded?  If you can’t find some of this information on the web, just call them and ask!

2.     Prioritize and Say No:  Use the information you have gleaned from your research to help you prioritize your requests.  Ask yourself critical questions such as:

o   How important is this stakeholder to me?  If it is a big customer, you will likely want or need to respond.

o   Will they make this information public?  If the information will be made public, try to determine how you might be rated.  Take a look at previous year’s ratings and see how you might stack up.

o   Will they publish something negative if you don’t respond?  If you think your report will be weak and the information will be public, maybe you want to wait a year to respond until you have a better story to tell.  Sometimes the information is made available to only a subset of people who pay for it, so it is broader than just your customer, but not fully public.  It’s kind of “quasi-public.”

o   What are your competitors doing?  If key competitors are being published in lists by this organization, this may be an added incentive to get a good response out there.

Most importantly, don’t feel that you have to respond to ALL requests you receive.  You are wise to be strategic with the organization’s time and resources.  Just be prepared to justify why you chose not to respond should the question arise.

3.     Develop systems immediately:  The biggest hurdle in reporting is gathering information and organizing your response.  Once you have decided which surveys you will respond to, you should immediately set up a tracking system for each survey. For each element/question within a survey, note the appropriate internal sources, a timeframe for when you need this information back, and some guidance about the question to help them understand what they are to provide, and a place for their response. This will become your basis for communicating to each internal contact and also for keeping track of all of this information yourself. If you have an internal project management system, definitely use that to make it easier on those from whom you need information.

4.     Build solid relationships internally:  The first year of responding to any stakeholder information request is the hardest.  You also have the greatest potential for irritating people who have to provide the information because you are still developing the system for responding. Try to be as organized as possible. Give those you need information from a lot of advance notice, if possible, and be very forgiving if deadlines are missed. Provide information about the requesting organization and why you have decided to respond. The number of requests you are going to get is likely to increase, so you need these internal sources as your allies.  Work hard at building and maintaining the relationships.  Also, if you have the opportunity, try to educate them on the business case for sustainability along the way.

5.     Develop relationships with requesting entities: (NOTE: This is probably my most important, and least used tactic!)  Most of the organizations that are asking you for information are doing so because they REALLY need you to respond. They are not trying to catch you with your pants down. They actually want to make reporting easier for you. The more you understand what they are asking for, the better your response will be – something that benefits them and you. Because of this, DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS. Not only will you avoid wasting time by gathering the wrong information, you will build better relationships with these stakeholders into the future.

6.     Leverage Information Over Time:  As the number of reporting requests you receive increases, it makes sense to start doing a cross sectional analysis. Which areas of sustainability are covered by multiple requests? (Carbon emissions is a typical one, as is human rights and labor.)  Once you have a sense of the pieces of information that are more frequently requested, you can be even more strategic about how you spend your time gathering information.  Hint: This information also helps you to begin to prioritize your sustainability activities!

Good luck with building your strategy for managing reporting requests!  If you are struggling with building your strategy or responding to reporting requests, shoot me an e-mail to find out how we can help.