Sustainability Rankings, the Global 100, and Greenwashing
The ranking was released just a few days ago, as reported here by Helen Coster for Forbes: Ranking The World’s Most Sustainable Companies
The term “sustainable”–like “green” and “all-natural” before it–conveys an abstract sense of do- gooding that many companies have been happy to adopt. Corporate Knights, a Toronto-based media company, applies hard metrics to the otherwise fuzzy term, and Saturday it released its seventh-annual list of the world’s most sustainable companies….
So, what does sustainability mean, here? Toby Heaps, Corporate Knights’ editor-in-chief, says one key is to ask this question: “how are companies squeezing more wealth from the resources that they use?” So far so good — I suspect that kind of efficiency measure has something to do with what most people take “sustainability” to mean. But next Heaps strays into strange territory when he asks, in addition, “How are they doing a better job of respecting the social contract, like paying taxes or having diverse leadership?” Huh? We’ll get back to the issue of criteria in a moment. First let’s look at the rankings.
The top end of the list is dominated by global brands from the telecommunication, pharmaceutical, and energy industries (Nokia, Johnson & Johnson and Intel are all in the top 5). But an oil company takes top honours (Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil). Yes, an oil company. Now, for many people, the petroleum industry is the epitome of unsustainable business. So this will immediately raise alarms for some people. Should it? Let’s take a closer look.
The Forbes story says that Statoil topped the list “thanks in part to improvements in its water productivity.” Fair enough: water productivity (efficiency of water use) is a clear sustainability issue. But what comes next is odd. The oil company apparently did well in the ranking in part because it is “also a healthy contributor to Norway’s coffers and has a diverse board”. In other words, this oil company scored well on a sustainability ranking by doing a whole bunch of stuff that has little to nothing to do with sustainability.
For still more detail, we can look at the ranking and an explanation of the methodology behind it on the Global 100 website. According to the Methodology page, the ranking is established by looking at “environmental, social, governance (ESG) and financial data.” Already we see here a rather expansive understanding of the word “sustainability.” Next, let’s look at specific measures they used.
Some of the metrics used make perfect sense, such as energy productivity and waste productivity. Some of them, however, are hard to figure, such as CEO-to-average-worker pay ratio. Executive compensation is an interesting (and, I think, complicated) ethical issue, but how does it relate to sustainability? The detailed explanation of the various criteria offers this rationale:
A disproportionate share of compensation expenditure going to one person can lead to lower overall workforce motivation, and can also be indicative of potential governance risks, or misalignments of interests.
All of that seems true, but largely irrelevant. Sure, those risks are real, and they may (may!) have something to do with keeping the company in business. But surely that is not what anyone beyond a handful of consultants means by the word “sustainability.” When the public wonders whether Walmart’s business is “sustainable,” they are certainly not wondering whether the company’s business practices are going to let them keep chugging along.
Another mystifying criterion is “Leadership Diversity: % of women board directors.” Again, that’s an important issue; companies need to do more to get women into senior leadership positions, including on the board. But is there really a clear link — either conceptual or empirical — between having women on the board and the company being sustainable? Unfortunately, while that criterion is mentioned on the Criteria & Weights page, it is missing entirely from the more detailed explanation of those criteria (see PDF document here) so what the link is supposed to be is anyone’s guess.
Other weird criteria include “Safety Productivity”, “% tax paid” and “Innovation Capacity,” though the latter makes at least a modicum of sense. As far as I can see, fully half of the ten criteria used have no clear link to sustainability. And given that all criteria are given equal weight in the Global 100 methodology, that means the ranking is actually only half about sustainability, and half about other stuff.
Now, I’ve been critical of the term “sustainability” before (see “Sustainability is Unustainable.”) A lot of what I’ve said before has to do with confusion over the meaning of the term, and the resulting difficulty in measuring and tracking companies’ performance in this area. I think the Global 100 ranking ends up providing a wonderful case in point.
But the real problem, here, is that the kind of sustainability measure instantiated by the Global 100 profits directly from the confusion over the meaning of the term “sustainability.” (And I do mean “profits” — Corporate Knights is a for-profit organization, as presumably are the research firms that helped develop the Global 100 and the vast majority of sustainability consultants who help companies preen for such rankings.) Now, I don’t actually have anything against profits, and I’m not impugning anyone’s intentions. My point is that the only reason this particular set of measures can be thought to add up to “sustainability” is that the term itself is ambiguous and means different things to different people.
What’s really being measured here is a broad range of indicators having to do with all kinds of things. Again, it includes “environmental, social, governance…and financial data.” And it’s all important stuff. So the Global 100 ranking really does tell us something important (but vague) about the companies listed. But what is announced is that ‘these companies are sustainable.’ What does that mean to the public? Environment. So the list implies that these companies are environmental good guys. The result: greenwash.
So, what’s the public to do? Maybe all the public can do is realize that what sustainability consultants and gurus mean by “sustainability” has relatively little to do with what they mean by that word.