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Ever since the rise of CSR practices in business we have seen the parallel phenomenon of a burgeoning number of CSR-related awards and rankings. In such rankings, the ‘most responsible’, ‘most sustainable’ company, or the ‘best corporate citizen’ gets recognized for their performance and progress in the area of CSR. Most appear online on an annual basis, and provide an overview of the most active companies in the field of responsible business. Unsurprisingly, firms take them seriously, not least because they are widely promoted and discussed online, giving firms a great opportunity to boast about their CSR credentials. There is considerable diversity in what actually gets assessed as responsible behaviour across the different awards and rankings. Most look at a host of issues, including environmental performance, treatment of employees, community relations, or how well the company avoids irresponsible behaviour (e.g. corruption). But it is also interesting to see the differences between rankings. While the European CSR Award Scheme mostly focuses on partnerships between business and other actors in society, the Asian CSR Awards focus on how well a company contributes to local ‘education improvement’, ‘poverty alleviation’, or ‘health enhancement’. The awards thus reflect regional differences in what stakeholders expect from a company. In a similar vein, two of the North America-based rankings, the Global 100 and the 100 Best Corporate Citizens lists explicitly include responsible financial management, good corporate governance and the pay gap between CEO and average worker— which clearly reflects some of the key concerns of the North American public in the wake of the financial crisis. The initiative to conduct these rankings is equally telling. Some of them are conducted by media organizations, such as Corporate Knights, Ethical Corporation, or Corporate Responsibility Magazine. The awards help to boost readership as well as providing a way of encouraging companies to enhance their CSR performance. Indeed, many rankings are published by business-led organizations that were set up with the goal to further the implementation of CSR in a particular country or region. CR Magazine is the voice of the US-based Corporate Responsibility Officers Association, which like Business in the Community (BITC) in the UK or CSR Europe at the EU level, aims to promote responsible business practices among its members. Increasingly, we also see consulting firms and think tanks occupying this space, such as Corporate Register or Sustainia, which both use the internet to solicit entries and publicize winners. Finally, the European CSR Award Scheme is heavily backed by the EU Commission, a pan-European representation of government. Next to these differences in criteria and the sponsoring organization, we can also observe an increasing diversity in the data used to rank companies. Corporate Register, for instance, focuses exclusively on ranking CSR/non-financial reports of companies and selects winners based on voting by its members. Another influential ranking, the CSR RepTrak 100 Study by the Reputation Institute in New York, instead focuses on the reputation of companies as responsible organizations among a broad panel of stakeholder groups. Others, such as Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Business Awards rely on entrants to enter reports of specific initiatives that are then judged by a panel of experts. The meaning and relevance of these rankings is not uncontested though. There is no shortage of social media criticism each time a ranking or award gets announced. This is because nearly all of the rankings include companies that in some of their operations raise serious concerns. For example, the Global 100 ranking of the world’s most sustainable companies features two oil companies among its top six companies, despite their focus on nonrenewable fossil fuels. Most rankings also focus almost exclusively on large, publicly listed companies whose footprint is inevitably larger than that of their smaller counterparts. This, at least, is starting to change with the emergence of two new rankings for small and medium companies—the B Corporation ‘Best for the World’ ranking of the top 10% of its certified member companies, and Corporate Knights’ ‘Future 40’ ranking of Canadian companies with revenues under $2 billion. Probably the most important effect of the rankings is that corporations are benchmarked against their competitors and thus feel the need to maintain their standing and, if at all possible, outcompete other companies on the list. Since they are so easily accessible on the internet, most rankings are also increasingly important tools for decisionmaking by consumers, potential employees, governments and even investors. The demands of the latter stakeholder group has taken the idea of rankings to another level in that many new stock market indices, such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index or the FTSE4Good, effectively rank companies according to their performance as responsible businesses.

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