What are the sustainable scores on the board? Who cares?

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/bieshutterb
© iStock/bieshutterb
Hardly a week goes by without a scorecard on sustainable sourcing, an index on environmental performance or new rankings for ethical business practices. There’s little doubt these have made a few businesses buck up in the face of adverse publicity but I have a feeling that many of these assessments have become redundant.

Take the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI). Nestlé topped the pile amongst food and beverage companies scoring more than double the average, with 92 out of a possible 100.

Impressed? That isn’t the half of it: in some of the criteria the firm scored 100%. Health and nutrition: 100%. Raw material sourcing: 100%. Packaging: 100%. Operational eco-efficiency: 100%.

Those behind the DJSI explained how it’s possible to achieve such scores: “A company can achieve a score of 100 if, as per our scoring methodology, for each question the maximum score is awarded.”

Isn't that obvious? They also point me in the direction of a 20-page document​ explaining how the (likely robust) methodology works, but the details of company scores are shared with the companies alone. Confidentiality is the reason given for this closed shop but transparency is an integral part of running a sustainable business.

Indeed, I am sure Nestlé​ has made progress in a number of the areas it scored so well in, but I can’t help feeling that its efforts have been undermined by its perfect score.

It’s almost impossible to scrutinise the results or, critically, look at where the food manufacturing sector is making headway and where it is struggling. Surely, in the interests of improved sustainability across the sector this information is essential?

Campaigners, at the very least, will be suspicious (But the DJSI isn’t designed for them, it’s designed for investors – “selected​” results were shared with the global investment community via Bloomberg).

Campaign groups of course have their own tables and systems for ranking big businesses. Scorecards for palm oil and soy, tables for procurement of sustainable fish and Oxfam’s Battle of the Brands analysis are just a few of those now completed on a regular basis.

They have their faults: a change in the scoring can sometimes see progressive companies tumble down the table if their policies aren’t purely aimed at gaining points – Nestlé’s palm oil performance​ could be a recent case in point).

Still, the assessments play an important role in spotlighting the bad and (increasingly) applauding the good.

“It’s exciting to watch these heavyweights battle for the number one spot,”​ noted Oxfam’s Sophia Lafontant in a blog following the release of the charity’s 2015 report.

But whilst the group of leaders at the top has expanded as the big brands in the middle ground begin to catch up, those at the bottom show little sign that they are willing to budge from their benthic zone. With some companies managing perfect scores I do wonder if some of them see it all as a pointless exercise?

To my mind independent scrutiny remains essential. But much like the certification schemes​ on which many of these assessments are founded, perhaps its time for them to evolve so the laggards engage and the pioneers remain stretched?


David Burrows

David Burrows has been writing about food policy, innovation and sustainability for more than a decade. He is a regular contributor to FoodNavigator as well as a number of other food and environment titles.

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Posted by David Burrows,

Thanks for the comment. Interesting idea, but would disqualifying 'winners' mean they stagnate for 3-5 years? I think the idea of scoring over longer periods would certainly help. Adjusting the criteria is also useful, but could leave some firms continually playing catch-up. Interesting to know what industry, generally, thinks of these scorecards and indices, not to mention awards.

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What for?

Posted by P Rogers,

I quite agree. As soon as an exercise becomes a box ticking one, or the aimed improvement has been achieved, it should be retired. One quite useful way would be to disqualify "winners" for 3-5 years, to enable the less well performing companies to be enthused.
If we are not careful this will become another non productive thing to waste money on, benefiting nobody except to people running it.

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