Unlike overall financial performance measures, such as revenue or capitalisation, which build from granular data expressed in dollars, there are no absolute measures of overall sustainability performance. Yet, there is huge interest in benchmarking sustainability performance. An external evaluation is a third party judgement of a business’s sustainability performance relative to some of its peers.

This article explains relative assessments of corporate sustainability by third parties, including raters, awards and surveys (12 min read).


There are three basic types of third party judgement of sustainability performance – ratings, awards and surveys. None of these alone provides a reliable overall judgement, but many together do add up to a valuable picture of the sustainability performance of a business, which is why many businesses that are successfully transitioning to being sustainable proudly list their external valuations in a prominent place on their corporate sustainability website (eg Danone).

  • Ratings
    • ESG performance raters use as much data as possible to give an holistic assessment of social, environmental, economic, governance and / or overall sustainability performance.
    • The ratings industry has sprung from the incomparability and inadequacy of extra financial disclosures. Raters collect, cleanse, aggregate and analyse sustainability performance data from corporate reports and numerous other sources to provide ratings, rankings and benchmarking analysis. This is available to companies and investors behind a paywall, although several raters openly publish high level ratings and top rankings.
    • Raters’ unique methodologies produce variable results, reflecting the heterogeneity of sustainability. Sometimes results are downright questionable, which suggest that the integrity of the methodology is off key. Generally, results seem to be most reliable when viewed by industry, as peer to peer benchmarks.
    • Raters focus on listed firms because in many regulatory jurisdictions those are the only businesses that issue an annual extra financial report. Qualifying firms may be included in an ESG index, such as FTSE4Good and the S&P Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI). Raters also focus on larger businesses because these are of more interest to most investors and they are more likely to purchase benchmarking analysis behind the rater’s paywall. This leaves a huge ratings gap. Businesses with revenues of less than US$1 billion, private businesses and cooperative businesses may well be outperforming their larger or listed cousins – or these unrated businesses may be failing horribly on sustainability with their awful behaviour lying off the ESG radar.
    • Sustainability experts have raised ethical questions about corporate sustainability performance being defined, calculated and publicised by raters, who predominantly work on behalf of ESG investors whose core interest is ROI and financial stability, as impact is still a highly niche investor motivation. And it has been noted that some businesses are adept at gaming ratings, decoupling their outward appearance from their internal practices.
    • On the other hand, businesses respond positively to ratings. Firms that have been rated have been shown to improve their performance more than peers that have not been rated. (Clementino and Perkins, 2020).
  • Awards
    • Awards are relative judgements of a group of entries, which oftentimes are about sustainability initiatives or projects that have recently been completed. Some annual awards schemes attract global or national competition and deliver huge kudos to winners.
    • Due to the workload of judging, entry criteria can be demanding and awards are often segmented, such as by project value or sustainable outcome type, to improve the comparability of entries.
    • Due to the narrow parameters (in time, location and scope) of judged material, which is usually provided by the applicant itself (although some awards schemes ask for references), some businesses are able to win sustainability awards for specific work whilst not behaving sustainably as a business.
  • Surveys
    • Surveys help us understand what a particular constituency of respondents thinks about a particular question. They combine the subjective views of many to form a more objective picture of broad sentiment or knowledge.
    • Survey design and interpretation are important to get right as it is tempting to extrapolate meaning from survey results that isn’t really there. Key factors to note are the expertise of the respondents in relation to the question, the precision of the question and the dataset they are asked to consider. Those surveyed may have too limited information on a subject or may have been asked to judge too huge a dataset that they may rely on what comes to mind (ie popular ideas, rumour or well-marketed messages) rather than answers that are factual or educated.


Each rater uses its own proprietary scoring methodology, selects a population of businesses that meet specific criteria, such as those above a certain market cap (eg SAM) and gathers data on each of those businesses from a unique mix of sources. Some raters ask companies to complete a questionnaire (eg CDP, B Lab, SAM), others use publicly available data (eg Corporate Knights) but do give companies the opportunity to review findings, and at least one well known rater simply combines the data from many other raters (eg CSRHub). Some are interested in specific elements of sustainability, such as human rights (eg CHRB) or environmental performance (eg CDP), while others take a broader look at many KPIs (eg MSCI). As a result, ratings are inconsistent.

The above-mentioned raters and their global rankings of major businesses are described below.

Corporate Knights Global 100

Focus. Integrated ESG and financial analysis.
Public disclosure. The Global 100 is announced annually at the World Economic Forum meeting that takes place every January in Davos. A detailed spreadsheet (click ‘free results’ here) of the companies’ scores across all KPIs is provided.
Size. Using a big data approach, CK evaluates companies worldwide earning a minimum gross revenue of US$1 billion. It excludes certain industries and companies with egregious practices, filtering down to a list of the top 100 by ESG score.
Process. Algorithmic, using publicly-disclosed, quantitative data to populate KPI fields. KPIs are prioritised by industry – if less than 10% of firms in an industry disclose an indicator, it is not considered to be a KPI for that industry. Finalists are contacted to verify their data.
Company benefits. Marketable kudos.

Top ten companies and their scores (published 21 January 2020) are listed below (in descending order). There are two Australian and no New Zealand companies in the 2020 Global 100.

Global Top 10
Orsted (85.20%)
Chr. Hansen (83.90%)
Neste (83.64%)
Cisco Systems (83.59%)
Autodesk (82.84%)
Novozymes (82.70%)
ING (82.53%)
Enel (81.77%)
Banco do Brasil (81.72%)
Algonquin Power (80.89%)
National Australia Bank (69.30%)
Westpac Banking (60.35%)


Focus. Thematic analysis focused exclusively on environmental disclosures. CDP commenced in 2003, known originally as the Carbon Disclosure Project, with carbon emissions disclosures. It expanded in 2010 to water security, and in 2012 to deforestation.
Public disclosure. The A List is a list of all companies scoring A in any category. On the same web page, users can search the database of final scores by company, region and category. A separate search page provides the scores (A to F, descending) by year for any participating company. Any member of the public can also register (for free) to access the original submissions by any company in any category in any year. Industry analysis is not made available to the public.
Size. In 2019, 8,446 companies submitted disclosures to CDP, including 8,361 on climate, 2,435 on water and 543 on forests, together representing more than 50% of global market capitalisation.
Process. Companies disclose voluntarily or in response to a request by a stakeholder, completing an extensive questionnaire (see the climate questionnaire here), which is scored independently (find out more here).
Company Benefits. Contributors receive disclosure support, data and analytics and insights.

Listed below are six global companies that earned AAA across climate, water and forests in 2019, and six Australian companies and one New Zealand company earning A or A- in climate. No Australian or New Zealand companies earned A in water or forest categories.

Global – climate A, water A and forests A
Hewlett Packard
Australia – climate A/A-
Vicinity Centres A
Dexus A
Stockland A
Telstra A
New Zealand – climate A/A-
Kiwi Property Group A-


Focus. Corporate Human Rights Benchmark provides a comparative snapshot, year-on-year, of the largest companies on the planet, looking at the policies, processes and practices they have in place to realise their human rights approach and how they respond to serious allegations. It was launched in 2013 as a multi-stakeholder initiative drawing on investor, business, human rights and benchmarking expertise.
Public disclosure. Full disclosure as a public good for all stakeholders satisfies several objectives: to acknowledge companies putting human rights at the core of their business; to enable investors to incorporate social costs into capital allocation decisions to better reflect the true costs of doing business; to introduce a positive competitive environment for companies; and to equip an evidence-based approach to challenging poorly performing companies.
Size. Assesses about 200 of the largest publicly traded companies in the world on a set of human rights indicators.
Process. Relies on public information disclosed by companies on their websites, other platforms or through the CHRB Disclosure Platform. Applies more than 80 indicators across 6 themes of differing weight.
Company benefits. Reputational benefits. Scoring is tough. In 2019, only 1 in 10 assessed companies scored more than 50%, while more than half scored less than 20%.

Listed below are the top twelve scoring companies in 2019 (scores aren’t provided). There are two Australian* companies and no New Zealand companies in the top twelve.

Note that several large mining companies score well on human rights – find out more in the report Digging Deeper: Human Rights and the Extractives Sector (PRI, 2018 (pdf)).

Global Top Twelve
Rio Tinto
Marks and Spencer Group
Freeport McMoRan
Newmont Goldcorp Corporation

B Lab

Focus. Stakeholder impact focus. B Lab offers a free, confidential online assessment tool, the B Impact Assessment (BIA) – sample questions here – which any company can use.
Public Disclosure. B Lab publishes a brief summary of Certified B Corps companies’ scores. Detailed submissions are not disclosed. B Lab also publishes annual lists of the top 10% scoring businesses in a number of categories.
Size. As of early 2020, there were more than 3,200 Certified B Corps in over 70 countries across 150 different industries.
Process. Certified B Corps make a legally binding agreement with B Lab, which includes changing their constitution to integrate stakeholder consideration into governance structure. There is also a considerable fee. In Australia and New Zealand, wider legislative amendment would be required to clarify the duties of, and provide greater comfort to, directors. Consequently, until such a mechanism is put in place, B Corps in Australia and New Zealand sign a term sheet to contract with B Lab Australia & New Zealand.
Company Benefits. B Corps become part of a community based around shared beliefs about business purpose and gain significant social capital, which helps attract customers and talent.

B Corp does not rank companies, but it does provide scores. The minimum qualifying score is 80, the highest is 200. Highest scores are around 160-170/200. There are more than 30 New Zealand B Corps companies.

Two of the largest New Zealand B Corps are:
Synlait (80.4)
Kathmandu (82.2).
B Corporations based elsewhere but with operations in New Zealand include:
AllBirds (89.4)
Ben & Jerry’s (110)
The Body Shop (82.6)


Focus. Integrated ESG and financial analysis, focused exclusively on companies with a large market capitalisation in the S&P Global Broad Market Index, who are invited to participate.
Public disclosure. Companies are listed with their industry, country and final score.
Size. Provides annual ratings of more than 3,000 companies worldwide.
Process. Participants complete an industry-specific Corporate Sustainability Assessment (samples are here), which is analysed to provide a measure of the company’s financially material ESG factors.
Company benefits. Contributors receive an in-depth assessment, a benchmarking scorecard, access to a benchmarking database and personalised feedback.

Top rated companies and their scores (as at 28 April 2020) are listed below.

Thai Beverage (92)
Dexus (90)
Teck Resources (90)
Terna Rete Electrica (90)
Koninklijke KPN (90)
Unilever (90)
Energias de Portugal (90)
Acciona (90)
Roche (90)
Coca Cola (90)
True Corp (90)
GlaxoSmithKline (90)
Hewlett Packard (90)
Owens Corning (90)

There are five Australian companies with scores of 80 or more, and two New Zealand companies with scores of 50 or more.
Dexus (90)
Westpac (83)
Stockland (83)
ANZ (82)
GPT (82)
New Zealand
Meridian (65)
Auckland Intl Airport (55


Focus. Consensus rater producing normalised ratings from many sources, so companies can be compared across industries and geographies.
Public disclosure. Overall ratings for each company are provided in a database searchable across many variables.
Size. Calculates scores for more than 15,000 companies from 135 industries in 132 countries.
Process. Big data aggregation and normalisation model across 12 indicators of employee, environment, community and governance performance. Data comes from more than 400 sources. Scores change frequently but usually only by a few points.
Company benefits. Subscribers gain access to all data and can compare their own perspective against the consensus view to find misperceptions. User can also create a profile with their own weightings for each ESG factor.

Global companies with scores of 70 or more (as at 28 April 2020) are listed below. The maximum score is 100. There are six Australian companies with scores higher than 60 and eight New Zealand companies with scores higher than 55.

Seventh Generation (74)
Bharat Electronics (73)
Ernst & Young (72)
ABB in India (72)
Acciona (71)
EDP Renovaveis (71)
Rabobank (71)
Bloomberg (71)
Engineers India (71)

There are six Australian companies with scores higher than 60 and eight New Zealand companies with scores higher than 55.
Australian Ethical Investment (66)
Stockland (64)
Brambles (63)
Dexus (62)
GPT (61)
CSL (61)
New Zealand
Fonterra (60)
Kiwi Property (59)
Meridian (57)
Air New Zealand (57)
Contact Energy (57)
Auckland Int’l Airport (57)
Kathmandu (56)
Spark (56)


Focus. Helps its 1,300 investor clients identify ESG risks and opportunities within their portfolios.
Public disclosure. MSCI changed its approach in November 2019, referencing a mission of transparency (pdf), to make its ratings, formerly behind a paywall, freely available. A summary of the searched company’s rating is given. Ratings are searchable by company name only.
Size. Independently rates 7,500 companies, including a good number of New Zealand companies.
Process. Rules based methodology using more than 1000 data points per company from government datasets, company disclosures and media sources for continuous evaluation across 37 ESG KPIs. Companies may be asked to verify some data.
Company benefits. MSCI’s core customers are investor clients, however a new service gives companies access to data. A company’s own reports are free, but peer and industry reports require a subscription.

MSCI provides individual company score sheets, but global rankings and scores sorted by industry or country are behind a paywall.

Other well-known raters include:


Three awards schemes are described below.

Ethical Corporation Responsible Business Awards

These are the world’s leading sustainable business awards, recognising businesses of all sizes from all over the world that are “truly having an impact on business, society and the environment”.

This scheme has expanded its award categories year after year, reflecting growing integration of sustainability into all aspects of business. Although global, there is a Europe and North America skew. Nevertheless, the judges are looking for agenda-leading examples, so the winners are undoubtedly global performers and their submissions are worth exploring for inspiration and insights.

2019 winners across thirteen categories are (in no particular order):

Kimberley Clark
Hannon Armstrong
The Body Shop

Fortune’s Change the World List

This list recognises companies that make a social impact through their core business strategy. The list is published annually in September.

Fortune partners with two impact consulting firms to assess applications and produce the long list. Their methodology considers measurable social impact and the contribution that the impact makes on shareholder value, as well as how relatively innovative the effort is and how integral it is to company strategy. The long list is evaluated and ranked by Fortune writers and editors. This list celebrates examples of social impact that is core to business, providing a good source of inspiration.

The 2019 list has 52 companies; it does not include any Australian or New Zealand companies. The top ten companies are:

TE Connectivity
Santander Brasil
Bank of America
Schneider Electric

NZ Sustainable Business Awards

These awards have been running for 18 years and have built up 12 award categories. Entrants include not only businesses, large and small, but also councils and NGOs. That size, purpose and field are no object is apparent in the Supreme Award winners, who range from Air New Zealand, one of the world’s best-known and longest-established airlines, to Little Yellow Bird, a fast-growing ethical clothing business, founded in 2015. This award scheme is a celebration of local action, helps foster relationships and shares insights across the whole New Zealand array of sustainability thinkers. Winners and finalists are feted in an annual gala. The Supreme Award is given to an organisation that is performing outstandingly well in all aspects of sustainability.

Supreme Award winners of the last five years are:
2019 Little Yellow Bird
2018 City Rail Link
2017 New Zealand Post
2016 Air New Zealand
2015 Taupo Beef


Three surveys about business sustainability are described below.

Globescan-SustainAbility Leaders Survey

For the 2020 survey, 700 sustainability leaders from 71 countries were asked to list up to three companies that they think are leaders in integrating sustainability into business strategy.

The respondent population is reasonably large, geographically diverse and expert, the question is precise and the dataset is not limited to, say, very large companies. Because the respondents are experts, it is likely that the most voted for companies really are leaders in integrating sustainability into strategy.

The most voted for companies in 2019 are (in descending order):

Unilever (42%)
Patagonia (26%)
IKEA (14%)
Interface (8%)
Natura & Co (8%)
Danone (7%)
Tesla (6%)
Nestlé (5%)
Microsoft (4%)
Ørsted (4%)
Marks & Spencer (3%)
L’Oréal (3%)
Tata (3%)

RepTrak Survey

RepTrak surveys more than 80,000 members of the public across 15 countries about their perceptions of the corporate reputation of 153 multinational businesses, each with an annual revenue of at least US$2 billion.

This survey has a very large sample population; however, the questions cover many aspects of brand reputation, ranging from emotional connection to social impact; the focus is on broad perceptions not facts; and, the dataset of 153 companies includes only very large companies that produce consumer products. This survey is of limited use for ascertaining relative sustainability performance.

The top ten ranked companies for corporate reputation in 2020 are (in descending order):

Walt Disney
Levi Strauss

Colmar Brunton Better Futures Survey

For its 2019 Better Futures report, New Zealand market research agency Colmar Brunton surveyed 1,000 local consumers online on a range of environmental and social issues.

This survey reveals that consumers have strong opinions on many issues but lack definitive knowledge about corporate performance on them. It was also found that 70% of consumers are unable to name a brand that is a leader in sustainability.

When consumers were prompted, it was found that the brands listed below “tell a more compelling sustainability story”:

Trade Aid (84%)
ecostore (83%)
earthwise (78%)
Tesla (71%)
Whittaker’s (68%)
Turners and Growers (68%)
Meridian (66%)
The Body Shop (64%)
Kathmandu (61%)
Genesis (61%)
Air New Zealand (61%)
Mercury (59%)
Fonterra (55%)

Author: Jennifer Wilkins
Last updated: Augsut 19, 2020