EDF Report Offers Perspectives on the Current State of Sustainability Ratings and Rankings and Suggestions for Improvement

G&A's Sustainability Highlights (03.29.2019)
Apr 2, 2019 12:00 PM ET
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Ratings, rankings, scores, best of lists – these are increasingly important to corporate issuers and for investors

The popular CBS TV Network nighttime host David Letterman for many years provided us with periods of laughter with his well-known top 10 list segments. (Example: The Top 10 Stupid Things Americans Say to Brits.)
There’s long been a spirited competition in the corporate sector along the lines of the popular “top of” or “best of” lists (with rankings) that companies are awarded, and/or that companies pursue in the effort to garner more third party recognitions and awards.  In recent years, there’s been a steadily-increasing number of such contests focused on governance, social and environmental issues.

Popular audience “top 10” awards seem to proliferate overnight (like mushrooms in the forest) coming forth from publishers, NGOs, conference organizers, trade associations, professional membership organizations, academia, and others.  All are welcome to some degree by investors and stakeholders and can add luster to the company reputation and brand.

Indeed, here at G&A Institute we have well beyond 400 “corporate awards and recognitions” related to ESG / Sustainability identified and profiled to help client companies round out their third party awards roster with relevant, suitable recognitions of different kinds.  The competitive kinds that we’re all familiar with include Best in industry. Best workplace for women. For LGBTQ employees. Best business sector economic development contributors in the state (the Governor’s Award). Best companies for Hispanic or African-American engineers…and on and on.

Some of these types of recognitions are well known and for investors and stakeholders, welcomed signals of third party recognitions of a company’s citizenship, responsibility or sustainability / ESG progress and achievements.

Many awards began as editorial features of magazines. (In past years, members of our team worked with Fortune on a “Best Places” annual award.)  Forbes is another well-regarded business and finance publication with much-followed awards for companies (the Best Employers List; Best Employers for Diversity; Top Companies to Work For, and more).

Investor-Focused Ratings / Rankings / Scores / Leadership Lists
And then there are the all-important ratings, rankings, scores, index/benchmark selections that many more public companies are receiving from such service provider organizations as MSCI, Sustainalytics and Institutional Shareholder Services; there are many robust corporate ESG profiles in the Bloomberg platform or on Thomson Reuters’ Eikon (now, “Refinitiv” branded); and coming forth from a host of other ratings organizations in the U.S. and Europe.  These ESG data sets, and rankings / ratings are also used by many third parties in the methodology to create other awards, recognitions, indexes, and so on.  This is why it's critical for companies to engage with and improve these key ESG investor data sets and rankings as they flow down and are used by many investors and many other stakeholders.

At the top – in the board room, C-suite -- these are indeed critical recognitions and independent (to a large degree) profiles of a company’s ESG strategy, actions, achievements, and recognitions.  Of course there’s grumbling from companies about the efforts to keep up and the independent views of the raters, and how the company may be presented in the ratings work.So how do the best of these ratings pay off for the public issuer?

Consider:  In terms of ROI for their awards efforts, sustainability rankings can help companies define internal performance measures, attract top talent and link executive comp to corporate sustainability efforts…so write the authors of an essay in Forbes.

Victoria Mills and Austin Reagan of the EDF (Environmental Defense Fund) then add:  Unfortunately, there’s a significant problem with these sustainability lists.

The authors point to a new report – “The Blind Spot in Corporate Sustainability Rankings: Climate Policy Leadership” – produced by EDF+Business -- which posits that: “Environmental problems like climate change will never be solved through voluntary corporate actions alone. Public policies are critical to reduce environmental impacts across the economy in an efficient and equitable manner, and on a scale commensurate with the challenges.”

The missing link, thinks EDF, is [corporate] public policy advocacy; companies can be doing more than just addressing their own ESG issues (and winning third party recognition for leadership and admirable rankings and scores from ESG raters). EDF thinks the most powerful tool companies have to fight climate change is their political influence.

The report explains EDF views on rankings vs. ratings; analysis of rankings (“all have a major blind spot”, explains EDF); the challenges of integrating climate policy advocacy into sustainability rankings; and, a series of recommendations.

The EDF opinions are sure to stimulate debate now among asset owners and managers, and within the corporate community.  We’re all hooked on sustainability / ESG rankings, ratings, scores and other opinions; they’ve become ever-more important in the decision-making of key asset managers.  So, in this brief report, EDF shares its perspective on the way forward to make corporate reporting on ESG more robust. 

This is just the introduction of G&A's Sustainability Highlights newsletter this week. Click here to view full issue.