Mark Twain and US business sustainability research

“There are lies, damned lies and statistics”, Mark Twain once said.

The more ethical business and green related surveys I get sent and survey results I see, (particularly by consulting firms wanting to make the case for companies to er, buy more of their services) the more sceptical I am.

But one should be careful here. Some quantitative research is useful, if the methodology is carefully considered. One cannot judge fully without looking at that, whilst bearing in mind the motivation of those producing their ‘research’ reports based on surveys and sometimes psuedo ‘in-depth’ stakeholder interviews (I’ve been on the end of more moronic ones than I care to recall, though they do seem to be getting better in recent times).

William S. Becker, who is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, provides in the Huffington Post an interesting summary of some latest ‘macro’ research on US companies and sustainability.

Make of it what you will, bearing in mind the limitations and problems of senior executive surveys (ever met a CEO who fills them in?) and that old Guinness ad quote that 66.66% of statistics are made up on the spot…

Here’s an excerpt from the piece, including the key recent survey findings on US business and sustainability:

“…after interviewing more than 200 corporations that represent 75 percent of the $36 trillion equities market in the United States, Siemens and McGraw-Hill Construction concluded that “corporate America’s embrace of sustainability has more than doubled in strength in the past three years with 76 percent of the largest U.S. firms reporting efforts and commitments that exceed those required by law.”

After surveying nearly 1,600 business leaders around the world, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) reported this fall that 92 percent of the respondents said their companies are addressing sustainability in some way.

Corporate interest in sustainability has remained strong even during the recession, BCG found, and there was a strong consensus among the business leaders it interviewed that companies “will play a key role in solving the long-term global issues related to sustainability.”

McKinsey & Company reports that in its annual survey of business leaders last year, “executives for the first time were more likely to view addressing social and political issues as an opportunity than as a risk.”

Despite the positive news from the business sector, corporations have a long way to go.

The majority of respondents in the BCG survey said “their companies were not acting decisively to fully exploit the opportunities and mitigate the risks that sustainability presents.” More than 70 percent said their companies have not developed a clear business case for sustainability.

Contradicting the Siemens’ survey, BCG found that among the companies it surveyed, most sustainability actions are the minimum required by law.

TIME’s poll found that 40 percent of the 1,000 largest companies in the United States have not created publicly available environmental policies; fewer than 8 percent use third parties to verify progress on their corporate social responsibility policies.”

The problem with a lot of these surveys like the BCG one and some of the questions they ask is very simple.

Who would say “no, we’re not doing sustainability this year, we don’t care about the environment”.

That’s got to affect survey results as opposed to an independent body conducting the research. The Time poll sounds more accurate to me.

Still, if you choose to believe them, (and some of them are likely somewhat credible) then a portion of the stats above represent cheering news.

1 Comment

  1. Another good Twain one is “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” (http://marktwainclassics.com/marktwain/quotes-facts-distortion/)

    Numbers can say anything you want them to say! 🙂

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