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Is It Possible To Actually Measure Which Companies Are Best For The World?

Just Capital’s new rankings dig deep into statistics about how companies treat their workers and the planet.

We’re not short of “non-financial” information about companies these days. We have public rankings of corporate behavior like the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index; environmental, social, and governance (ESG) databases; and plenty of self-confessed reports (though only the wonkiest of wonks read them). Compared to a decade ago, we know much more about what brands are and aren’t doing on, say, climate change and energy efficiency.

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But it’s questionable whether this data is either accurate or actually important. When you ask Americans what they care about, it’s not really what companies tend to report. Just Capital, a new corporate responsibility initiative from the billionaire financier Paul Tudor Jones, surveyed 50,000 Americans to find out their citizenship concerns: six of the top seven were pay or worker treatment issues, not issues like philanthropy that companies tend to favor.

The New York group’s Just 100 ranking is different in that it weights issues according to popular interest and Just Capital does most of its own legwork in collecting data, rather than relying on company disclosures. Just Capital has a $7 million annual budget and employs 30 people to produce data on 890 companies across 32 major industries. It also has a wide range of academic partnerships, like with MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.

In this year’s ranking, covering 36 categories, American Express, Ford, Fluor, Legg Mason, Eastman Chemical, Colgate-Palmolive, Varian Medical Systems, Google-owner Alphabet, and PepsiCo, came out highest in their respective industries. “It’s a jigsaw puzzle we have to put together,” says Martin Whittaker, Just Capital’s CEO. “Data is the thing that keeps me up at night, because we want to have the best data available, and it’s not always easy to know where it is and how to get it.”

To assess whether companies are meeting living wage standards, Just scoured records from Dun & Bradstreet, Glassdoor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, H-1B visa applications (which report pay levels), and job ads. Then it compared its numbers with MIT’s assessment of cost-of-living levels for each county (minimum costs for child care, health insurance, housing, transportation, and other basic necessities). Many retail companies don’t pay living wages: 85% workers at the nation’s 47 biggest chains–5 million out 6 million people–fail to meet a threshold for the county where they work.

Launching the Just 100 recently, Jones said he hoped to foster a “competition for goodness” among companies. There’s a need for data to empower consumers, employees, investors, and employers, and for a new reckoning on issues like income inequality, which has been rising, threatening the normal functioning of the economy. “I don’t think we’re in a stable place right now [on inequality],” the hedge fund manager said.

Whittaker stresses the Just 100 is in its early stages. It’s yet to rank companies across industries (because it’s more difficult than staying within industry). Plus, it’s hard to maintain data when you’re relying on public sources as opposed to company disclosures, he said. In the future, it hopes to harness data-mining techniques to capture insights from the web and social media, taking a page from the book of other data-driven industries. “That’s a really interesting frontier for measuring company performance, period. The way companies collect data on all these things is still very rudimentary and basic, and it has to improve, because people are going to want that information,” he says.

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[Photo: JoeyCheung/iStock]

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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