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Nestle tries to tackle questionnaire fatigue

February 2002

One of the world’s largest food companies has become so fed up with processing questionnaires on its ethical performance that it may soon politely decline to complete them.

The Nestle group says it may instead post a detailed pre-answered questionnaire on its web site so it does not have to deal with pages of questions from the wide variety of organizations that request highly specific information on its social and environmental performance.

Nestle head of investor relations Roddy Child-Villiers said the company was having to devote an increasing amount of management time to responding to questionnaires and surveys from researchers, analysts, fund managers, ratings agencies and non-governmental organizations.

‘We will start by doing the questionnaire and then see whether it does the necessary before taking a firm decision on whether to proceed,’ he said. ‘We do not have a firm timetable as it is not time-critical and we want to get it right.’

He said Nestle was concerned that some queries, such as ‘what is the average wage of your employees?’, could only be answered at considerable cost and were anyway of doubtful value. Nestle has 230,000 employees and nearly 500 factories in 77 countries.

Nestle’s move comes amid signs that public companies are becoming irritated with the large number of questionnaires on their ethical performance, especially when many of the answers are in their social and environmental reports.

One senior executive of a large investment management house specializing in SRI said: ‘These questionnaires are getting insane. Some are 40 pages long, and companies have people employed solely to fill them out.

‘We talked to one firm recently that was so overwhelmed by answering questions from various sources that we asked them just to send in a photocopy of an SRI questionnaire they had filled out for someone else. We then said we would get back with a few questions to fill in any gaps, which wasn’t very professional but it was the only way that both of us could manage it.’

Barry Stickings, chairman of the chemicals giant BASF and former president of the Chemical Industries Association, said part of the problem was that questionnaires often posed too many questions of marginal relevance to the business. ‘I‘d like to see data sets on questionnaires that are more relevant to particular industry sectors,’ he said.

SRI consultant Mark Mansley said researchers should ideally make greater use of information provided in corporate non-financial reports and rely less on questionnaires, but this would not happen until more companies reported the results of meaningful social and environmental audits.

Child-Villiers said: ‘There is certainly an issue here and it does appear that some companies are spending a huge amount of time on questionnaires. That’s why we’re exploring this idea.’

 




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