Should oil firms make a list of the world's most sustainable companies?

Here comes a new list of the “most sustainable corporations in the world,” and it’s a doozy.

Two of the top five companies on the 2013 Global 100 list are oil and gas companies:

3. Norway’s Statoil ASA

4. Finland’s Neste Oil.

Read farther down and you find:

No. 81. Suncor Energy,

which was the first company to develop Canada’s oil sands, source of some of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet.

A notch below is:

No. 82. Unilever

the consumer products giant whose sustainable living plan embodies the broadest and deepest commitment to corporate responsibility of any big, global company.

This is….er….puzzling.

So what’s going here? And what does this tell us about corporate sustainability rankings and their meaning, a topic that never seems to go away? [See my blogpost Corporate sustainability: Who's up, who's down, who cares?]

global100_websiteThe first thing to know is that this list comes from Corporate Knights, a Toronto-based publication that calls itself “the magazine for clean capitalism.” I’m an occasional contributor to the magazine. In fact, I profiled the No. 1 company on this year’s list, a Belgian firm called Umicore, which we’ll get to in a moment. Last year, I wrote about the 2012 Global 100 list in GreenBiz under the headline: Is This the World’s Best ‘Greenest Companies’ List? I wrote then, and I still believe, that unlike some other rankings, this is a well-conceived list with integrity, transparency and clear metrics.

The second thing to know is that, taken as a group, these companies may well be more sustainable than the universe of companies from which they are drawn -- a global group of about 4,000 companies. Interestingly, Corporate Knights has backtested the Global 100 against its benchmark, the MSCI All Country World Index (ACWI), and found that it outperformed the benchmark since 2005, when the list began. The company says:

Over this period, the Global 100 offered investors a 59.89 percent total return, compared to 50.39 percent for the MSCI ACWI, resulting in 9.5 percent outperformance.

Next page: Are the Global 100 more forward-looking than their counterparts?