The Dow Jones Sustainability Index is the only sustainability index for investors and remains the Oscar of corporate sustainability. But does it employ an effective definition of sustainability? (Photo Source: hms.harvard.edu)

In an age where environmental awareness and climate mitigation are becoming central priorities, it’s encouraging that more than a billion people from 192 countries recently celebrated Earth Day. But what are the most effective steps we can take to reach sustainability, and how can we best track our progress in getting there?

Unfortunately, metrics and best practices for achieving a sustainable planet are failing to develop concretely. So when I discovered a webinar, “Unlocking the Mysteries of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index,” discussing the methodology behind this widely accepted tool for measuring corporate sustainability, I was intrigued to learn how the for-profit world defines and ranks businesses seeking to be more sustainable.

Launched in 1999, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) was the first global benchmark for sustainability. I had assumed that the Index ranked companies based on such variables as their business practices, supply chains, or some other method that would assess which companies are the most environmentally and socially responsible. But instead, the main priority of the DJSI is to rank “sustainability-driven” companies based on how viable of an investment option they are, according to their long-term fiscally sustainable growth.

The DJSI is the only sustainability index for investors, and, according to the webinar, earning a DJSI ranking remains the “Oscar” of corporate sustainability. The index looks at only the largest of the 2,500 companies in the Dow Jones Global Total Stock Market Index. Last year, of the 2,763 companies that were invited to submit an application to be considered in the DJSI, 1,443 were analyzed and approximately 320 were included in the index.

(Photo Source: "Unlocking the Mysteries of DJSI" powerpoint)

On April 10, companies were sent the requisite survey to be considered for the DJSI. Each question has a predetermined score for the answer, a weight for the question, and a weight for the overarching criteria questions are placed into. When filling out the assessment, a company does not know the point value given to different questions and criteria. This allows for every question to be answered as honestly as possible, but it also makes it difficult for companies to focus their resources in specific areas that would make them more sustainable, at least in the eyes of the DJSI.

This lack of transparency prevents an accurate and effective evaluation of the assessment tool as well. For example, it is widely accepted that one of the most effective ways to reduce energy demand while also mitigating climate change is to improve energy efficiency—yet it’s not clear how the efficiency of, say, a company’s buildings or facilities, plays a role in the DJSI rankings.

One gets a sense of the index’s priorities when looking through the DJSI guidebook. The document lists the many reasons why a company may be removed from the index even after having been awarded a ranking. The first reason is poor business practices (tax fraud, money laundering, antitrust, balance sheet fraud, corruption cases, etc.) followed by human rights abuses (discrimination, forced resettlements, child labor, etc.), layoffs or workforce conflicts, and, lastly, catastrophic events, which include ecological disasters.

Examples of companies being taken off the list are BP, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2011, and more recently Olympus due to an internal financial scandal. The fact that poor financial conduct—not careless environmental and social behavior—is the very first reason given for why a company may be removed from the DJSI shows just how relative the definition of sustainability is.

It’s been more than 20 years since the Brundtland Commission defined “sustainability” as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The fact that, still today, the most widely regarded sustainability metric in existence is a financial investment tool that values economics more than environmental and social impacts shows that we are not yet where we need to be. Investments deemed worthwhile by the DJSI are based on expectations of long-term economic growth and expansion, which, if done irresponsibly, are largely counterproductive to what environmental sustainability is.

Despite the well-intentioned effort of the DJSI, a lack of transparency in how the index’s questions are weighted and a focus on underlying financial priorities that may be contradictory to environmental sustainability make it difficult to determine if a company is truly sustainable and if it is being labeled correctly. For investors attempting to invest intelligently and sustainably, there is a need for a clearer and more all-encompassing definition of sustainability in the DJSI.

 

 

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