Archive for the ‘rankings’ Category

Global 100: Sustainably Misleading

Corporate Knights continues to mislead. Once again they’ve issued a list of the world’s “most sustainable” corporations — the Global 100 — and once again the metrics they’ve used have surprisingly little to do with what most of us mean by the word “sustainability.”

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. The organization is right to defend the fact that there are oil companies (including Enbridge, for example) and other producers of “sin” products on their list. There’s nothing in principle that says an oil company can’t, in some useful sense, be sustainable. And even if you think the fact that a company like Enbridge should be docked points because oil is a non-renewable resource, it still is a useful and interesting exercise to look at which oil companies (for example) are leading the field in terms of sustainability. So, CK is right to defend itself in this regard.

No, the problem with the Global 100 is not that they give kudos to a few unpopular companies. The real problem lies in the criteria used to measure what they refer to as “sustainability.”

Here are the 12 “key performance indicators” that get a company onto the Global 100:

  • Energy productivity;
  • Carbon productivity;
  • Water productivity
  • Waste productivity
  • Innovation Capacity
  • Percentage Tax Paid
  • CEO to average employee pay
  • Pension fund status
  • Safety performance
  • Employee turnover
  • Leadership diversity
  • Clean capitalism pay link.

These are essentially the same criteria they used (and which I critiqued) last year. The only difference is that they’ve added the bit about “Pension Fund Status,” the relevance of which may already have you wondering.

Hopefully the problem with those criteria is clear to most of you: only the first four — the first third of the criteria — actually have something to do with what most of us mean by “sustainability.” The rest are important issues, to be sure, but not relevant to the question of sustainable use of resources, or to the notion of sustainable economic growth that is compatible with environmental conservation.

Many will surely defend these criteria, and will tell me that I’m working with too narrow a conception of sustainability. Sustainability, they may say, isn’t just a narrow environmental concept. It’s about the whole People-Planet-Profits nexus. Well, certainly you can draw a diagram with boxes and arrows that shows connections of various kinds between those three. But to say that the three are one is to make so many undefended ethical, conceptual, and factual assumptions that the only result must be unnecessary confusion.

No, the Global 100 really isn’t a sustainability index, at least in the way that word is used by normal folks. It’s a complex index of sustainability, fairness, and a bunch of other positive stuff. And if you’re interested in all that stuff, why not just say so? Why bury it in a word that most people take to mean something else entirely?

The kicker, in terms of misleading language, here, is the tag-line that completes the title of the Corporate Knights list: “The Global 100: World Leaders in Clean Capitalism.” The problem here is that “Clean Capitalism” is a term Corporate Knights uses to describe what others might refer to as “conscious” capitalism, or perhaps “corporate social responsiblity.” But when most of us hear “clean,” we think “not dirty,” or “not polluting.” The implication, here, whether intended or not, is that the firms on this list are clean ones, firms unlike the dirty, polluting, earth-pillaging firms of the past.

Now, it would be one thing if Corporate Knights wanted to turn the word “sustainability” (or “clean”) into a technical term, a term of art with a special meaning for experts in the field. But that’s not what’s going on. Instead, they’re turning the word into a brand, a buzzword, and it’s a buzzword with which 100 companies are today adorning press releases. A hundred firms are today bragging about being sustainable, and are doing so with Corporate Knights’ endorsement. But “sustainable,” here, simply does not mean what you think it means.

Sustainability Isn’t Everything

The word “sustainability” doesn’t just refer to everything good. If it did, we wouldn’t need the word “sustainability” at all; we would just use the word “good.”

I’m just a small-town philosopher who likes words to mean what they mean. That’s why I got cranky when I saw the new Global 100 Ranking, which is ostensibly a sustainability ranking. (See my blog posting here.) Why cranky? Because over half of the criteria used to arrive at that ranking have nothing to do with what I — and, I suspect, most people — think of when they hear the word “sustainability.”

But let’s set aside the fact that this usage is potentially misleading; words evolve, and maybe the public will catch up with the Global 100 in its broad understanding of the term “sustainability.” Does this new, revised meaning of “sustainability” make sense?

Let’s start with the word “sustainable.” Well, standard dictionary definitions suggest that it means something like, “Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” OK, good. That’s a positive thing, right? But wait. No one cares about corporate sustainability in that sense, with the possible exception of certain narrow-minded shareholders. We want businesses that are more than merely capable of being maintained. We want businesses that are worthy of being maintained.

So sustainability needs some normative content. It needs some goodness baked in.

In this regard, the touchstone is the U.N.’s Brundtland Commission. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission asserted that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” And ever since then, at very least, the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” have had very significant environmental overtones. OK, good. Here, “sustainability” is being used to indicate some plainly good things: environmental sustainability isn’t the only good thing in the world, but it’s definitely a good thing from a social point of view, embodying not just the value of the natural environment but also a sense of intergenerational justice.

But some people (including the people behind the Global 100) want to expand the term “sustainability” to include other, non-environmental dimensions. From a certain point of view, this makes sense: other things required to allow a company to “sustain” operations. But then further problems arise.

Note that when we expand “sustainability” this way, a subtle bit of sleight-of-hand takes place. Previously, we were talking about business operations that were environmentally sustainable. Now, we’ve switched to sustainable organizations. What does it take to sustain an organization? Lots of things, and not all of them are good. And being sustainable isn’t, in itself, a good thing. The tobacco industry has lasted for centuries, leaving millions of dead bodies in its wake. Very, very sustainable. But bad.

As noted above, we don’t generally care whether companies can stay in business. We want them to merit staying in business. And if the companies on the Global 100 merit staying in business, why not just say so?

In the end, I guess my point really is that environmental sustainability is important all on its own, and doesn’t need to be fluffed up with issues like workplace safety or leadership diversity or CEO pay; and issues like workplace safety and leadership diversity and CEO pay are too important to stuff into the simple concept of sustainability.

2012 Global 100 Greenwash

Corporate Knights has announced its 2012 list of the “Global 100,” its annual ranking of what are ostensibly the world’s most sustainable companies. And once again the list is deeply misleading.

The list is topped by pharmaco Novo Nordisk, Brazil’s Natura Cosmeticos, Norwegian energy company Statoil, the Danish biotech company Novozymes, and a Dutch company called ASML Holding, a manufacturer of photolithography machines used in the semiconductor industry. Some will surely express surprise at the list — after all, none of these companies is in an industry known for being squeaky-clean. But that’s not the real problem.

The real problem lies in Corporate Knights’ methodology. Like all similar rankings, this one has to choose some criteria. And the devil is in the details.

Here are their criteria used to determine the Global 100 — a sustainability ranking — for 2012:

#1. Energy productivity
#2. Greenhouse gas (GHG) productivity
#3. Water productivity
#4. Waste productivity
#5. Innovation Capacity
#6. % Taxes Paid
#7. CEO to Average Employee Pay
#8. Safety Productivity
#9. Employee Turnover
#10. Leadership Diversity
#11. Clean Capitalism Paylink

The problem is that more than half of these criteria — #5 through #10 — have nothing to do with sustainability. I do realize that the exact definition of “sustainability” is up for grabs at this point, and many people interpret it quite broadly. And yes, if you use your imagination and squint your eyes a bit, I guess you can conjure up a connection between “Leadership Diversity” and sustainability. But it’s a stretch. I mean, sustainability has something — something — to do with environmental issues, right?

One sustainability consultant who shall go unnamed recently told me that “sustainability doesn’t mean ‘sustainability’ any more — it just means all the good stuff that business does.” The problem is, that’s not what the term conjures in the mind of the public, the consumers of the headlines a list like this provokes. When they hear “sustainable” they think “green.” So a sustainability ranking that is only partly based on environmental performance fails in its basic functions, namely to reward companies for their green behaviour, and to educate consumers about which companies are performing well on issues that are important to them.

100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics, 2010

For the third year in a row, I’ve been honoured by Ethisphere Magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics.” I was recognized in the category of “Thought Leadership.”

Once again, I’m humbled but also encouraged that my 5 years’ worth of blogging is seen as having some impact on the world, however indirect.

Sustainability Rankings, the Global 100, and Greenwashing

What’s so sustainable about the Global 100 “World’s Most Sustainable Companies”? Not much, as far as I can see.

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.

Trustworthy Business Behavior

I was recently honoured to be named among the “Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior” for 2010, by the folks at Trust Across America.

The list is an interesting mix. It includes fellow business ethics profs like Laura Hartman and Mary Gentile, along with business leaders like Jeffrey Hollender (formerly of Seventh Generation), Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and consultants like Charles H Green and Christine Arena, as well as journalist-bloggers like Aman Singh.

The focus on “trust” in this listing is interesting. There’s probably not much to differentiate this list from a listing of thought-leaders in, say, business ethics or CSR. That’s not to say that a different title wouldn’t have changed the list at all; but basically all such lists, whether they’re of companies or of individuals, are about the doing the right thing in business or about promoting and fostering such behaviour.

But I do like the focus on trust. I think the role of trust in commerce simply cannot be overstated. Business — and that includes consumers interacting with any business — simply cannot happen without trust. Consider, for example, how crucial trust is…

  • …whenever you buy any consumer product, and thereby trust not just the person who sold it to you, but dozens or perhaps even hundreds of people who helped make that product.
  • …whenever one business buys something from another business, just by picking up the phone and saying, “Hey, please send us a box of X, and we’ll pay you at the end of the month.”
  • …whenever anyone is employed by anyone else. (In that case, the employer trusts the employee not to shirk as soon as the employer’s back is turned, and the employee trusts the employer to pay the agreed-upon amount at the end of the day or week or whatever.)
  • …whenever you give some of your money to a bank, ask them to hold onto it for you, and then (as most of us do) take their word for it when they tell you how much interest you’ve earned (or, more likely, how much interest you owe them on the money you’ve borrowed).
  • …whenever you climb into a taxi, or sit down at a restaurant to eat. (The driver or waiter is trusting that you will actually pay your bill at the end, rather than make a dash for it.)
  • …whenever you pick up the phone to order pizza. (The fact that it actually shows up means that they trust you to pay for it when it gets there.)

Basically, all of us, in our organizational lives and in our lives as consumers, end up trusting dozens and perhaps hundreds of people (and many many business organizations, too) during the course of our daily lives.

Of course, sometimes we use specific mechanisms to enforce trustworthiness — policies, laws, regulations, warrantees, contracts, etc. But all the formal enforcement mechanisms in the world couldn’t possibly keep a complex modern economy running, in the absence of a fundamental ethical commitment to trustworthy behaviour.

Most Hated American Companies Of 2010

The corporate world is certainly subject to plenty of criticism, and even hatred. But which companies are hated most?

Here’s one look at that question, from 24/7 Wall St.: The Fifteen Most Hated American Companies Of 2010

Customers, employees, shareholders and taxpayers hate large corporations for many reasons. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed many of these to choose the 15 most hated companies in America.

We examined each company based on six criteria….

(Note that the title “Most Hated” actually understates the sophistication of the ranking method used here, which includes measures of employee satisfaction, media coverage, total return to shareholders, and more.)

Interestingly, several of the companies on this “most hated” list have appeared on the Business Ethics Blog before.

As you read through the whole list, it’s worth noting more generally the role that unethical (or at least ethically controversial) behaviour plays in generating hatred.

The Ethics of Ethics Awards

Here’s a story worth looking at, by Will Evans, in Slate:
It’s All Good: Beware of corporate consulting firms offering awards for corporate ethics.

Evans casts a skeptical eye on corporate ethics rankings. The article focuses in particular on the rankings issued by Ethisphere (the same organization that has honoured me twice in the last 2 years). I should also note that I’m mentioned in the story as someone who was technically a member (though not an active member) of the advisory board for its corporate ethics ranking.

I’m also quoted by Evans as saying that such rankings should be taken “with a grain of salt.” (Note, though, that the sentence that contains that quote might be taken, wrongly, to imply that I think rankings are window dressing. That’s an accident of sentence structure, and doesn’t represent my view.) But it’s true that such rankings shouldn’t be taken too literally. Corporate ethics is complex, and any ranking methodology is going to involve compromises and is going to be inherently controversial.

Now, I’ve been blogging about the limitations of corporate ethics rankings for years. Just a few examples:

A few quick points to make about Evans’ article:

First is that, to be fair to Ethisphere, the article doesn’t give any particular reason for singling out Ethisphere’s rankings, among the many similar rankings. I suspect an article could easily be written about each of the other rankings, with similar results (though perhaps not with precisely the same set of complaints).

Second, the key worry that Evans cites about Ethisphere’s corporate rankings is that Ethisphere’s sister organization, Corpedia, is an ethics and compliance consulting firm. And it’s not clear how (or to what extent) Ethisphere manages to insulate its ethics ranking from Corpedia’s interest in gaining new clients. It’s a fair worry, and I imagine we’ll see improvements from Ethisphere (at least in terms of transparency, and perhaps in terms of process) in the coming months.

Third, it’s worth noting, as in other cases involving conflict of interest, that there’s no accusation of actual malfeasance, here. Nowhere does Evans imply that Ethisphere has done anything dishonest, or that its rankings have actually been biased. The worry, rather, is in…well, in the worry. We worry about C.O.I. not just in situations where we think someone has actually been biased, but also in situations in which we think that bias could be likely to occur. It diminishes our faith in the system, though not necessarily in the people working within it.

Fourth, it’s also worth noting that the concern highlighted by Evans in his article mirrors quite directly the worry about financial consulting firms that (at least prior to Sarbanes Oxley) provide both auditing and other consulting services to the same company. Prior to Sarbanes Oxley’s harsher limits, accounting firms did at least have a range of mechanisms in place (such as Chinese Walls) to insulate their auditors from the profit-hungry consulting branches of their own firms. Groups that do rankings might learn from that example.

Finally, a point about the point of ethics rankings. Evans ends his article with an anecdote about a company that had done well on an ethics ranking, and that used that achievement as a way of trying to deflect questions about a more recent scandal. That, of course, is an utter misuse of such a ranking. Corporate ethics rankings, at their best, acknowledge — and hence reward — achievement in certain measurable ethically-relevant behaviours. They are not an eternal benediction, and neither corporate insiders nor outsiders should treat them that way.

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