Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

What is it about lists that so fascinates? I know I’m not alone on this, lots of people have a thing for lists. Me, I not only read them, I make them, they’re all over the place. I don’t leave home without a list. I once read a whole book of lists (it sold millions) mostly about things I didn’t even care about. It’s the top 10, or top 25, or top 100 lists that always grab my attention. I can’t resist them. So here are three lists I recently came across that at least have something to do with the responsible investment theme of this column.

The first is a report published by Ethisphere (www.ethisphere.com) on the world’s “100 most ethical companies”. I won’t get into their methodology, but they state that “these companies up the ante for what it takes to be an ethical leader and force their competitors to follow suit or fall behind.”

The second is a list entitled “100 companies that will survive 100 years”, and is based upon research done by a firm called Innovest (www.innovestgroup.com), that is globally acknowledged to be a leader in “analyzing companies’ performance on environmental, social, and strategic governance issues, with a particular focus on their impact on competitiveness, profitability, and share price performance.”

The third list is from the online resource at Sustainable Business.com (www.sustainablebusiness.com), a news and research organization that has done some excellent reporting on this theme since 1996. Their list is only 20 names long, and I’m sure there are some people who wonder how they found that many commendable businesses, let alone the 100 you find in the other lists.

While I can’t quite grasp how a company would be ethical but not sustainable, or vice-versa, there is not as much overlap between these lists as one might think. They are as interesting for the companies that are included as for those that aren’t. So I’ll cull some of the more recognizable names from these lists and remember, don’t shoot, I’m just the messenger here.

From “100 Most Ethical Companies” list

  • Dole
  • BMW
  • Honda
  • HSBC
  • Accenture
  • Xerox
  • Henkel
  • Whirlpool
  • General Electric
  • American Express
  • General Mills
  • Kellogg Company
  • Caterpillar
  • Time Warner

From “100 Companies to Survive 100 Years”

  • Air France
  • Amazon.com
  • Dell
  • Kodak
  • Intel
  • Lafarge
  • L’Oreal
  • Michelin
  • Nestle
  • Nokia
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Prudential
  • Roche
  • Walt Disney
  • Toyota
  • Unilever

From the “20 Most Sustainable Companies” list

  • Canon
  • Green Mountain Coffee
  • First Solar
  • Danone
  • Interface
  • Nike
  • Novozymes
  • Philips
  • Vestas
  • Whole Foods Market
  • Google

Only two companies made all three lists – Nike and Novozymes. A number of companies made two of the lists, including Danone, Philips Electronics, Google, Vestas, Alcoa and Honda. Pepsi was on the ethical list but not the sustainable one, Coca Cola and Toyota the other way around. Don’t shoot! Interface Inc., one of the most progressive corporations in the world from environmental, social and governance points of view, was somehow excluded from the two bigger lists but should have been on all three.

If you dig hard through these lists you will even find a few Canadian companies – Encana, PetroCanada, Telus, TD Bank, Royal Bank, TransCanada Pipe and, uh, that’s it, I couldn’t find any more.

We all want corporations to stop behaving badly, right? So rather than taking easy shots at the companies seen here, one might recognize that this type of research has done a great deal to broaden the dialogue on what makes any company ‘better’. Isn’t it more constructive to try and understand why these businesses merit attention from ethical or sustainable perspectives? As far as investors are concerned, studies continue to prove what a positive impact this has on a corporation’s financial health. It’s also a reminder that despite many flaws, capitalism is work in progress, a system still evolving, and not necessarily rotten to the very core.