Corporate sustainability, by the numbers: Who’s up, who’s down, who cares?

This has been a big week for corporate sustainability rankings, with the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) and the Carbon Disclosure Project releasing new reports. Vote Solar and the Solar Power Electric Industries Association showcased the  top 20 corporate users of solar power in the US. A book called Good Company just landed on my desk, along with its own 2012 Good Company Index. And October will bring the World Series, Halloween and, of course, the annual Newsweek “green” rankings of big public companies.

All of which raises a couple of questions.

Do these ratings and rankings matter?

More important: Should they?

Undeniably, they do matter, mostly but not entirely because of the prestige they confer upon companies that do well. Press releases are flying! “Carbon Disclosure Project Salutes Con Edison” (Really?) “PepsiCo Earns Sustainability Accolades.” “GM Named Top Solar User in the U.S. Auto Sector.” This is all well and good. Some middle-management executive had to fill out those CDP forms or buy those solar panels, and why not recognize their efforts with a salute or an accolade?

Seriously, though, companies that do well–like Microsoft, which improved its performance on the Carbon Disclosure Index and was added to the global Dow Jones  Sustainability Index — used these rankings to track their own progress. Dan Bross, senior director of corporate responsibility at  Microsoft, told me by email:

Rankings help us benchmark our work and help stakeholders evaluate companies on a range of criteria.  CDP and DJSI are, in my mind, two of the most credible as their rankings are data driven and analysis extremely thorough.

More than PR cred and good feelings are at stake. Real money follows the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. About $6 billion in assets are invested in a variety of financial products — including mutual funds and ETFs from such money managers as Barclay’s Capital and Credit Suisse — that track the DJSI. So, when Microsoft is added to the index and IBM is booted out (for reasons that aren’t explained in either case), some money managers will be selling IBM and buying MSFT. Will this move the stocks? No, because $6 billion spread across several hundred companies is just a bit more than pocket change. But clearly it’s better to be in the DJSI than to be out.

Other additions to the DJSI World Index include Target, Hewlett Packard, Canadian National Railway Co. and — to my surprise — Enbridge Inc., a Canadian oil & gas company that is best known in the US because it “spilled 20,000 barrels of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in the most costly onshore spill in U.S. history.” That’s not an NGO talking; that’s  the Wall Street Journal. The 2010 Kalamazoo oil spill “was the result of corrosion throughout many vital safety aspects of the Enbridge organization,” said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the accident. Enbridge had another nasty, but smaller spill, from a pipeline in Wisconsin this past summer.

How does an oil company make its way onto a sustainability index? Well, the DJSI follows what it calls “a best in class approach, including companies across all industries that outperform their peers in numerous sustainability metrics.” So Enbridge was added to the index by SAM, an investment boutique that focuses on sustainability and manages the index, because it was judged a better performer than most of its peers of the oil and gas industry, which tells you something about the rest of the industry.

Kicked out of the DJSI World Index, along with IBM, were United Technologies, Dell and Duke Energy. Those were surprises to me, too. IBM works hard to make cities smarter and more sustainable, UT is into energy efficiency big-time, Dell’s a recycling leader and Duke’s Jim Rogers has been a leading utility industry voice for climate regulation, although the company remains a major coal-burning utility.

The setback for Duke pleased Greenpeace and its climate campaigner Robert Gardner, who said by email:

Unlike those companies on the index that distinguish themselves through a commitment to delivering a sustainable product with minimal environmental impact, Duke is setting itself apart with a profit model tied almost exclusively to dirty, polluting energy.

To be fair, Duke held onto its spot on the DJSI North America Index.

As for the second question — about whether these and other ratings and rankings should  matter — my answer is, they shouldn’t matter as much as they do.

Partly that’s because comparing companies, particularly across industries, is inherently difficult task. This is a big problem for Newsweek’s green rankings, which try to compare tech companies to retailers to manufacturers. It’s impossible. This is why the DJSI uses its “best in class” approach. For investors who want exposure to a variety of industry sectors, this  makes sense. But an index that includes oil and coal companies doesn’t deserve the name sustainable.

What’s more, without context, rankings don’t mean much. Walmart ranked No. 1 on the solar list, and there’s no doubt that the giant retailer is committed to sourcing renewable energy. Then again, Walmart is a giant, as big as Home Depot, Target and Kroger combined, and it sells more of just about everything, from organic cotton to prescription eyeglasses to guns and ammo, than anyone else. So it ought to be No. 1 in solar, too.

Still, there are trends worth recognizing here, for better or worse–mostly worse, I’m sorry to say.

The DJSI World has, since its inception in 1999, very closely tracked the stock markets as a whole. Actually, it slightly trails the MSCI World Index.

That’s discouraging. If the index is, in fact, selecting the most sustainable companies, they ought to be rewarded by forward-thinking investors. They’re not. Here’s a chart:


Another finding, this one from the Carbon Disclosure Project: The companies reporting on their carbon emissions targets said that they plan to reduce their CO2 emissions by 1 percent a year. The trouble is, global consultant PwC, which worked with the CDP, says that reductions of about 4% are needed to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C (3.5 degrees F), the target agreed up by UN climate negotiators, as my colleagues at GreenBiz reported.

Malcom Preston, PwC’s global lead for sustainability and climate change, said: “The reality is, the level of corporate and national ambition on emissions reduction is nowhere near what is required.”

Put simply, corporations and governments together are failing to do what needs to be done.


  1. Ed Reid says

    “Put simply, corporations and governments together are failing to do what (environmental activists say) needs to be done.” However, they are doing far more to reduce carbon emissions than the developing countries of Asia, which continue to rapidly increase their carbon emissions.

    We ignore the global nature of carbon emissions at great peril. It is not possible to begin reducing global annual carbon emissions until we first stop increasing them.

  2. says

    Great post, Marc. DJSI looks to be underperforming the main index. Sustainability – as currently practiced – works as an overhead for businesses not a driver of innovation and cost savings. HP is the classic case. Is there a more ambitious index that is outperforming business as usual?

  3. says

    My employer, UPS, is one of those companies that celebrated inclusion on the DJI and CDPI this week with a 99, tying with Microsoft as a top scorer in the U.S.. In addition to pride, we see both of these indexes as a way to demonstrate a commitment to transparency so that investors and consumers can make buying decisions based on facts. All that data collection eventually is used to make us more efficient and improves our ability to manage our resources wisely. And that’s good news for investors and our customers.

  4. says

    Mark, your post hits on many good points and as sustainable investors, our firm, Boardwalk Capital Management, has a different take on many of them. First, on DJSI – We chose not to benchmark to it. There was too much turnover in constituents, thanks to an arbitrary cut off level. IBM did nothing wrong this year, but because another firm increased in rank, it “needed to be deleted”. Investors don’t think this way. (Also, including Canada has hurt performance vs. the S&P500. One need not build a portfolio this way if they are tracking US companies.)

    On oil and sustainability: Best of class is laudable, regardless of industry. So called “social funds” often underperformed because they avoided whole industries. So why not recognize that we will use fossil fuels for many years to come? Invest in the best of them.

    Lastly, market-like performance with a smaller environmental footprint is a WIN! is shows investors that one need not sacrifice performance to benefit society. The CDP has shown that companies who disclose outperform, on average. A big exception is Apple who stubbornly resists calls to give investors more info on carbon.
    Try outperforming the index these days without owning Apple… It ain’t easy.

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