I’ve always been sceptical about CSR rankings and ratings. Partly because there are just so many of them. It sometimes feels as if we have a ranking and rating system for every company. Just find the one that fits your needs and away you go! But this also underlines a deeper problem with rankings and ratings - is it even possible to have a ranking or rating system capture all the differences and diversity amongst businesses?
Citizen IBM had a good piece on how CSR Rankings Can Be Improved. They capture some of the key problems I have – from the needs to acknowledge the differences in industries to the need for continuous improvements to full transparency in the criteria used. But I don’t think they went deep enough – and I would like the scratch the surface a little bit more.
Firstly, as Citizen IBM mentions, the differences between industries should be acknowledged. But it goes deeper than purely the differences between those who manufacture and those who offer services. And it’s these differences that makes it even more difficult to take rating systems seriously. Let’s remove the obvious difference for a moment – let’s exclude for the sake of argument services companies and only focus on companies who manufacture.
Even within manufacturing the differences are just too steep to make a single standard rating workable. Most rating systems looks at the impact of the manufacturing process – environmental impact, workplace practices, financial performance, governance etc. Most companies within manufacturing can be judged according to these, right? Well, just hang on for a minute there…
What most of these rating systems focus on, measure and rate are the impact of the process and not the impact of the actual product delivered by the manufacturing process. Let me give you an example, it is possible for a tobacco company to have excellent CSR practices in their manufacturing process and therefore rank better than say a pharmaceutical company. But the actual product delivered by the pharmaceutical company is vastly different than those from a tobacco company – the one contributes to the health of society and the other do the opposite.
Now it will be easy to exclude tobacco companies – and many do. However, the basic principle remains. The extremes are easy to differentiate – and we can exclude tobacco and arms manufacturers. But what about comparing the products of an oil company to a pharmaceutical company? How do we judge the end product and the impact of that end product? Especially when we start bringing in the idea of sustainability – leaving the future world in a better or no worse place. How do you rate a product that positions us better for the future against a company who serves an immediate need but at a high environmental and sustainability cost? How do you rate a software company who connects sustainable solutions to a company whose software is used for warfare? The differences in what the products deliver becomes complicated and makes comparisons complicated and almost impossible.
Even within a single industry it is complicated and problematic – how do you differentiate between an energy company that produces only oil to one that only produces solar or another “green” energy? And what about a traditional oil company spending more and more on alternative energy? How do you judge the future impact and value of the product or service?
The approach to ratings also undermines a key development in CSR over the last few years – finding the opportunity of mutual responsibility or shared value between the company and its stakeholders (or society at large). Companies are increasingly seeing CSR as a way to create new opportunities that will be beneficial to both the business bottom line and the needs of society. But the approach of rating systems doesn’t allow for this to be reflected because they focus on the impact of operations and not the business model and approach to CSR. You can (and will) therefore have companies who practice CSR the old way (ticking boxes, compliance etc) have a higher rating than companies who seek new ways to create product and service solutions that will benefit both society and the business itself. Too many ratings take a “tick the box” approach instead of looking at innovation, opportunity, mutual responsibility, societal benefit etc.
And it goes even deeper than that…
The drive towards a common standard has another unwanted impact – individual criteria might mean a company have excellent rankings on some but fail on others. Especially those areas where their major impacts are. Let’s say a company rates highly on governance, philanthropy, financial performance and the environment but their major impact is actually on human rights. And let’s say this company then operates in countries where child labor or forced labor are fine. The fact that they have great rating in all but one will most likely give them a good rating overall. But they fail in the area that matters most to their specific company as it intersects with society. Again, the standardization of ratings therefore fail to acknowledge the area of major responsibility and impact of the company.
That’s my biggest problem with ratings and rankings. They focus too much on the process and too little on the impact and value of the actual products and/or service delivered and those areas of major impact and responsibility. A single standard rating and ranking to compare all companies cannot capture these differences adequately. Rankings and ratings go for the lowest common denominator and fail to truly rate those who benefit society today and tomorrow and fail to acknowledge the differences in impact between different industries – or even different companies within an industry.
Frankly, I don’t rate ratings and rankings that much…