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Barron’s 100 Most Sustainable Companies

By LAUREN FOSTER
Sat, Feb 24, 2024 7:00amGrey Clock 6 min

Many companies would love a break on labour, after a year of strife when workers from Hollywood to Detroit flexed their muscle. It may be wishful thinking to expect a reprieve.

A resilient economy isn’t likely to shift leverage from workers to corporate bosses. Despite pockets of layoffs, namely in technology, the job market remains tight, with unemployment near record lows. A backlash against “diversity, equity, and inclusion” initiatives, or DEI, is jumping from colleges to companies— Alphabet and Meta Platforms have reportedly pulled back, for instance. Throw in a virtual lockdown on immigration, combined with a spike in U.S. manufacturing, and many companies may have another rough year of labour challenges.

Some companies are navigating these issues better than others—finding ways to reward workers and meet DEI goals without taking big hits to their profits or reputations for social responsibility. Several of those faring well made it into Barron’s ranking of the 100 most sustainable companies .

To make the list, our seventh annual ranking, companies were scored on a variety of environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, measures. Barron’s worked with Calvert Research and Management, a leader in responsible investing, to rank the companies. The top 100 firms—winnowed from the largest 1,000 publicly traded U.S. companies—achieved the highest scores across 230 ESG metrics, from workplace diversity to greenhouse-gas emissions. (See below for the complete list and more about the methodology.)

Home-products company Clorox sits at the top of the leader board for the second straight year, edging out Kimberly-Clark , CBRE Group , Hasbro , and Agilent Technologies in the top five. The overall lineup spans a wide range of industries, with tech, industrials, and consumer companies all well represented.

Many of the companies delivered solid results for shareholders. The top 100 returned an average 19% in 2023, versus 26%, including dividends, for the S&P 500 index. That doesn’t look great. But the S&P 500 is weighted by market capitalisation and last year’s “Magnificent Seven”— Apple , Microsoft , Amazon.com , Nvidia , Meta Platforms, Tesla , and Alphabet—fuelled almost all the market’s gains. Strip away that influence, and the equal-weighted S&P 500 returned 14%, trailing the 100 most sustainable companies.

Several stocks delivered standout returns in 2023, led by chip maker Nvidia, ranked 41st with a 239% gain. Other tech winners included HubSpot , Intel , Applied Materials , and Lam Research . Strong performers in other industries were Trex , Lennox International , Williams-Sonoma , Insight Enterprises , and Owens Corning .

A big theme in this year’s rankings was progress on corporate governance and labor relations, says Chris Madden, a managing director at Calvert, which is owned by Morgan Stanley Investment Management. “A lot of the companies on this list have done a stellar job dealing with employees,” he says.

Strikes were big in 2023 as Hollywood screenwriters and Detroit auto workers took to the picket lines, winning concessions and pay raises. Pilots and other unionised groups fared well, breathing life back into the organised labor movement, which had been in decline since the 1950s. New technologies such as artificial intelligence and electric vehicles are upending vast industries, prompting workers to demand more protections.

Tensions between companies and employees are spilling over in more public ways, thanks in part to social media; workers are using platforms like X and TikTok to amplify their message or try to shame their employer, says Alison Taylor, clinical associate professor at NYU Stern School of Business and author of a new book, Higher Ground . One of the most interesting recent trends, she says, has been the rise of “strategic leaking, where young employees undercut sunny messaging from the top with their own lived experiences.” She cites the trend of sharing layoff experiences on TikTok as an example.

Battles are also brewing over DEI, including a political backlash by conservatives, complicating corporate efforts to meet their own DEI goals. Last year, a number of high-profile chief diversity officers exited their roles at some of the biggest U.S. companies, including Walt Disney and Netflix . This month, Zoom Video Communications fired a team focused on DEI initiatives as part of a round of layoffs.

The issue is also bubbling up in the presidential race. During a rally in Philadelphia last year, presidential hopeful Donald Trump promised to eliminate all diversity, equity, and inclusion programs “across the entire federal government.”

Many companies say they remain committed to DEI goals. According to a Conference Board survey late last year of chief human resource officers, none planned to scale back their diversity efforts, while 75% said improving the employee experience and organisational culture would be a top focus in 2024. Alphabet said in a statement that it is inaccurate to suggest it is “deprioritising our longstanding efforts for underrepresented communities.”

One company that scored well on labor and other sustainability factors was Walmart . The world’s largest retailer landed at 61 on the list. “Walmart stands out for its strong labor practices,” says Helen Mbugua-Kahuki, Calvert’s director of research. “We’ve seen Walmart do a really good job as it pertains to increasing wages for its workers.”

One of America’s largest employers, with 1.6 million U.S. workers, Walmart raised entry-level pay for store workers last year, taking its average hourly wage to $18, well above the federal minimum of $7.25. The company also increased wages for store managers to an average $128,000, plus better bonuses. A Walmart spokesperson said the retailer has been “investing in its front-line hourly associates for the past several years.”

Walmart’s other positives include education and training benefits, which the company says have saved workers nearly $500 million over the past five years. Calvert gives the company high marks for being more open to worker feedback through new digital forums . “It’s a form of open communication and provision for employees to freely express themselves,” Mbugua-Kahuki says.

Walmart still has its labour critics. The company has faced multiple lawsuits over gender discrimination. None of its roughly 4,700 U.S. stores have unionised, making it the largest U.S. employer without any unionised workers. In January, the National Labor Relations Board’s San Francisco office issued a complaint against a Walmart store in Eureka, Calif., alleging violations of labour rights. The NLRB said there are 21 other unfair labor practice cases open against Walmart.

Walmart has denied the NLRB’s allegations in a legal response . The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Other Faces of Sustainability

Calvert says Clorox, whose brands include its namesake bleach, Burt’s Bees cosmetics, and Glad trash bags, took top honours thanks to its strong governance structure and pay equity, among other factors. The firm’s board is diverse, with 50% women and 25% people of color. In 2023, Clorox once again achieved pay equity, which means “no statistically significant differences” in pay by gender globally and race or ethnicity in the U.S., according to Clorox. “Pay equity is important because it creates a better culture,” says Madden.

Clorox’s shares underperformed the market in 2023, in part because of a cyberattack that caused wide-scale disruptions and hurt financial results. But its workers, at least, appear to be well treated, with perks including more flexible time for all. “We really intend for people to use this to refuel their tanks,” says Kirsten Marriner, chief people and corporate affairs officer.

About a fifth of this year’s list consists of newcomers. Game publisher Electronic Arts made the list for the first time, debuting at No. 32. Calvert says the company is making strides in DEI, including a push for better representation of women in its games. EA’s hugely popular Ultimate Team mode saw women football players introduced for the first time last year . Calvert also lauds the company for hiring “underrepresented talent” above the average rate in the industry for the fifth straight year and placing more minorities in executive roles. EA declined an interview but confirmed Calvert’s information.

Also making its debut this year is Trex, landing at No. 68. The company is a leading maker of “wood-alternative” home decking and railings made from a blend of recycled and reclaimed raw materials.

Some companies made a big leap up in this year’s ranking, among them Tetra Tech , which jumped from No. 56 to No. 8. Calvert singled out the consulting and engineering firm for its efforts to remediate toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, better known as “forever” chemicals. But it noted that Tetra Tech “could improve on human-capital management and offer more incentives for its employees.”

How We Ranked the Companies

To build our list of most sustainable companies, Barron’s  worked with Calvert, a leader in ESG investing. Starting with the 1,000 largest publicly traded companies by market value—excluding real estate investment trusts—Calvert ranked each one by how it performed in five key constituency categories: shareholders, employees, customers, community, and the planet. Specifically, it looked at more than 230 ESG performance indicators from seven rating companies, including ISS, MSCI, and Sustainalytics, along with other data and Calvert’s internal research.

These data were organised into 28 topics that were then sorted into five categories. In the shareholder category, for example, topics included board structure, business ethics, and executive compensation. For employees, workplace diversity was a key topic. The planet category included greenhouse-gas, or GHG, emissions and related policies; biodiversity; and water stress. Calvert assigned a score of zero to 100 in each category, based on company performance. Then it created a weighted average of the categories for each company, based on how financially material the category was in its industry. To make Barron’s list, a company had to be rated above the bottom quarter in each material stakeholder category. If it performed poorly in any key category that was financially material, it was disqualified.



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Some chocolatiers and coffee makers say they will have to pass on the extra cost to consumers

By JOSEPH HOPPE
Sun, Apr 14, 2024 4 min

Global prices for cocoa and coffee are surging as severe weather events hamper production in key regions, raising questions from farm to table over the long-term damage climate change could have on soft commodities.

Cultivating cocoa and coffee requires very specific temperature, water and soil conditions. Now, more frequent heat waves, heavy rainfalls and droughts are damaging harvests and crippling supplies amid ever growing demand from customers worldwide.

“Adverse weather conditions, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, have played an important role in sending several food commodities sharply higher,” said Ole Hansen , head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank.

The spikes in prices are a threat to coffee and chocolate makers across the globe.

Swiss consumer-goods giant Nestlé was able to pass only a fraction of the cocoa price increase to customers last year, and it may need to adjust pricing in the future due to persistently high prices, a spokesperson said.

Italian coffee maker Lavazza reported revenue of more than $3 billion for last year, but said profitability was hit by soaring coffee bean prices, particularly for green and Robusta coffee, and its decision to limit price increases.

Likewise, chocolatier Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli said in its 2023 results that weather and climate conditions played a major role in the global shortage of cocoa beans that led to historically high prices. The company had to lift the sales prices of its products and said it would need to further raise them this year and next if cocoa prices remain at current levels.

Hershey ’s chief executive, Michele Buck , said in February that historic cocoa prices are expected to limit earnings growth this year, and that the company plans to use “every tool in its toolbox,” including price hikes, to manage the impact on business.

In West Africa, where about 70% of global cocoa is produced, powerhouses Ivory Coast and Ghana are facing catastrophic harvests this season as El Niño—the pattern of above-average sea surface temperatures—led to unseasonal heavy rainfalls followed by strong heat waves.

Extreme heat has weakened cocoa trees already damaged from heavy rainfall at the end of last year, according to Morningstar DBRS’s Aarti Magan and Moritz Steinbauer. The rain also worsened road conditions, disrupting cocoa bean deliveries to export ports.

The International Cocoa Organization—a global body composed of cocoa producing and consuming member countries—said in its latest monthly report that it expects the global supply deficit to widen to 374,000 metric tons in the 2023-24 season, from 74,000 tons last season. Global cocoa supply is anticipated to decline by almost 11% to 4.449 million tons when compared with 2022-23.

“Significant declines in production are expected from the top producing countries as they are envisaged to feel the detrimental effect of unfavourable weather conditions and diseases,” the organisation said.

While the effects of climate change are severe, other serious structural issues are also hitting West African cocoa production in the short- to medium-term. Illegal mining poses a significant threat to cocoa farms in Ghana, destroying arable land and poisoning water supplies, and the problem is becoming increasingly relevant in the Ivory Coast, according to BMI.

The issues are being magnified by deforestation carried out to increase cocoa production. Since 1950, Ivory Coast has lost around 90% of its forests, while Ghana has lost around 65% over the same period. This has driven farmers to areas less suited to cocoa cultivation like grasslands, increasing the amount of labor required and bringing further downside risks to the harvest, the research firm said.

The Ivory Coast’s cocoa mid-crop harvest—which officially starts in April and runs until September—is expected to fall to 400,000-500,000 tons from 600,000-620,000 tons last year, with weather expected to play a crucial role in shaping the market balance for the season, ING analysts said, citing estimates from the country’s cocoa regulator. Ghana’s cocoa board also forecasts a slump in the harvest for this season to as low as 422,500 tons, the poorest in more than 20 years, according to BMI.

Neither regulator responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, extreme droughts in Southeast Asia—particularly in Vietnam and Indonesia—are resulting in lower coffee bean harvests, hurting producers’ output and global exports. Coffee inventories have recovered somewhat in recent weeks but remain low in recent historical terms. Robusta coffee has seen a severe deterioration in export expectations, while Arabica coffee is expected to return to a relatively narrow surplus this year, said Charles Hart, senior commodities analyst at BMI.

The global coffee benchmark prices, London Robusta futures, are up by 15% on-month to $3,825 a ton. Arabica coffee prices have also surged 17% over the last month to $2.16 a pound in lockstep with Robusta—its highest level since October 2022. Cocoa prices have more than tripled on-year over these supply crunch fears, and risen 49% in the last month alone to $10,050 a ton.

“Cocoa trees are particularly sensitive to weather and require very specific conditions to grow, this means that cocoa prices are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as drought and periods of intense heat, as well as the longer-term impact of climate change,” said Lucrezia Cogliati, associate commodities analyst at BMI.

Cogliati said global cocoa consumption is expected to outpace production for the third consecutive season, with intense seasonal West African winds and plant diseases contributing to significant declines.

Consumers hoping for a return to cheaper prices for life’s little luxuries in the midterm may also be in for a bitter surprise.

“There is no sugarcoating it—consumers will ultimately be faced with higher chocolate prices, products that contain less chocolate, and/or shrinking product sizes,” Morningstar’s Magan and Steinbauer said in a report.

“We anticipate consumers could respond by searching widely for promotional discounts, trading down to value-based chocolate and confectionary products from premium products, switching to private-label from branded products and/or reducing volumes altogether.”

The record-breaking rally for cocoa and coffee is likely more than just a flash in the pan, according to Citi analysts, as adverse weather conditions and strong demand trends are likely to support prices in the months ahead. The U.S. bank estimates Arabica coffee futures in a range of $1.88-$2.15 a pound for the current year, but said projections could be lifted if the outlook for 2024-25 tightens further.

At the heart of it all, climate change is set to play a major role, as the impact of extreme weather events could exacerbate the pressure on cocoa and coffee supplies, according to market watchers.

“I don’t expect prices to remain at these levels, but if we continue to see more unusual weather as a result of global warming then we certainly could see more volatility in terms of cocoa yields going forward, which could impact pricing,” said Paul Joules, commodities analyst at Rabobank.