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Twenty years on, corporate sustainability still lacking

<p><span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0); font-family: arial, helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 13px;">None of the 20 companies designated as best performers are based in the U.S., but seven are in the U.K.</span></p>

After 20 years of rating corporate sustainability efforts, German-based oekom research has found that global giants have not been doing nearly enough in their commitments to sustainability. In its most recent annual report, oekom found that only one in six -- 16.7 percent -- of the companies rated has a "good" level of commitment.

That so few companies are performing at all well -- none has been accorded oekom's highest rating -- is especially sobering given that 62 percent of companies now report that they pursue sustainability strategies, and almost two-thirds of those that do state that doing so has been profitable for them.

The industry sector with the highest sustainability performance rating was paper and forest, but that sector's rating was only 47.7 out of a possible 100.

"The very industry which, more than any other, stands for sustainable management has thus failed to achieve even half of the maximum possible score," Matthias Bönning of oekom said in a statement.

The only other sectors achieving even a rating of 40 were household products and automobile.

The worst performing sectors were real estate and oil and gas -- "sectors which have a key role to play in overcoming the major challenges of sustainability," the report states. Insurance and commercial banks, both of which will play important financial roles in achieving sustainability, performed poorly as well.

Not one of the 20 companies designated as best performers in the industry sectors is headquartered in the U.S. Seven are based in the U.K. and the vast majority of the rest are elsewhere in Europe.

"The quality of sustainability management in North America and Asia is significantly lower" than in Europe, the report found.

Observing that addressing climate change is of "paramount importance," the report concludes, "The time remaining for taking decisive political, economic and social action in order to prevent the worst from happening is already running out."

However, "the ideas, concepts and technical capabilities needed to meet the challenges successfully already exist," oekom continued. "Environmental and social commitment are not the product of economic success, but rather its root cause. Only those who manage energy and raw materials efficiently, treat their own employees and those of their suppliers fairly and offer products that are tailored to changing market requirements will also be economically successful in the long run. In this sense, sustainability is also described as long-term economics."

Oekom research was founded a year after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. On behalf of the sustainable investors that comprise its clientele, oekom analyzes and rates both companies and nations on their sustainability performance.

For several years, oekom has published an annual Corporate Responsibility Review, which rates the world's largest companies according to their performance in the seven areas of climate protection, biodiversity, water, forestry, poverty, demographic changes and corruption.

Despite the shortfalls in this year's report, the report isn't all doom and gloom. In oekom CEO Robert Haßler's foreword to this year's edition, he described the shifting corporate response to the agency's measurement of sustainability performance in the early years.

"At the time, many companies viewed this as a monstrous imposition," he wrote. "Managers were not used to having outsiders systematically and comprehensively scrutinizing their social, environmental and ethical behavior."

This article reprinted with permission from SocialFunds.

Photo of frayed rope provided by Verdateo/courtesy Shutterstock

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