I have asked the Canadian sustainability campaigner, founder and CEO of Corporate Knights, and instigator of the Global 100 World’s Most Sustainable Corporations about his organization’s work. For a business interview, this five-word mission statement is refreshingly direct. For a sustainability advocate, it is startlingly businesslike.
But then Heaps sometimes seems an odd bedfellow for both camps. He has balanced roles in academia, city governance, the corporate world, and political lobbying. And, since 2002, he’s lead his own brainchild, Corporate Knights—a research and monitoring organization with a quarterly magazine of the same name that promotes what Heaps calls ”clean capitalism.” He is charming and affable, and quietly intense. He speaks softly, fluently, and fast.
Corporate Knights ranks among the most sustainable companies globally, but what makes its work valuable in a way that goes deeper than the usual annual polls—and makes it stand out in a landscape littered with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and greenwash—is its methodical, holistic view of sustainability, across environmental, corporate governance, and social factors. But Heaps shrugs off the suggestion that he is bringing a corporate approach to sustainability. Corporate Knights is, he says, about nothing more or less than transparency.
We all want a better future
Heaps’ approach feels rational, but deeply human as well. “I honestly believe humans are good at heart,” he says. “The thing is, we all want a better future. But it’s so hard because we have no idea what forces to align with. All I do is make it easy, if you want—put it on one page. So that whatever you want to do as a customer or an investor, you can use your informed judgement.”
"I honestly think it will not solve all our problems, but half are solved by a better awareness of what is going on, and—that phrase—knowing who is ‘on the right side of history’.”
The operational side of Corporate Knights’ rankings are carefully thought out by Heaps and his Toronto-based team, who approach it with the methodical dedication to consistent presentation more commonly associated with scientific research. “There is no point ranking once,” he continues. “You have to do it over and over, year after year, after year, after year. That way, you get more and more data and detail to play with. And you get a truer picture. And as the stakes get higher, the more we can shift companies, and shift outcomes.”
It’s not about ‘tell me’ but ‘show me’
Talk of methodology leads to the global trend toward open data sets, and extreme transparency. I wonder aloud where Heaps sees Corporate Knights in the company of projects like the Panama Papers. Heaps is relaxed about the comparison. Heaps sees his own league tables of sustainability as being part of the global movement toward transparency and reporting that is forcing businesses to become more accountable in everything from finances to employee relations. “We see ourselves as part of a large wave of organizations committed to radical transparency. Our work has had an impact on boosting transparency.”
He laughs when he admits the seemingly endless nature of the work. “It’s a lot of complexity to boil down to a couple of pages and call it the Global 100! It can be endlessly scaled of course—the next 1,000 companies, and companies by countries.”
But the idea of simplicity is core to his vision. In a field so obfuscated by claim and counterclaim, gathering consistent data is one thing—presenting it in a way that it can be understood and acted upon is another. So Heaps sees openness, transparency, clarity, and concision as not just things he brings out in corporations, but things Corporate Knights must itself embody in order to succeed. “The public is a lot less trusting than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago. It’s now not ‘Tell me,’ it’s ‘Show me.’ And that’s positive,” he says.
“And it’s not surprising. We’re at a time when we’ve seen fossil-free funds found to have fossil fuels in them. We’ve seen accounting scandals. And I have no doubt that there will be scandals in the future. But the good news is that we are seeing this stuff audited now, and we’re seeing a lot more attention to detail.”
This has also seen companies becoming far more acutely aware that people are watching, Heaps says. “Companies are transferring sustainability from their comms departments—it used to be seen as a PR issue, something that could be handled with press releases or advertising—to more core functions such as Legal, Risk, and Business Development departments. These are the functions to which sustainability has migrated.”
“And what is cool is that you can now get insight into the souls of these companies, and into their investors, by looking at a single Excel spreadsheet. It’s sometimes that simple. You can just look at what percentage of a corporation’s revenues, and its profits, are invested in sustainable resources.”
Transparency, vigilance, and honesty
The tipping point is within the investment community. “We’ve also engaged with investors—theirs is a background role that is very powerful in shaping business decisions, but that you don’t often hear talked about,” Heaps explains.
“Now, if you’re an investor, your job is to look at the crystal ball—however far into the future—and see how that company is health-wise. For example, do they have a disproportionate share of a growth market? Or a declining market, such as cars? Or is it a market that was a growth market but is now in decline, or at least has peaked?”
This is perhaps the defining feature of Corporate Knights’ mission. Heaps sees access to clear information as the key to helping consumers, investors, and ultimately businesses themselves to make better, smarter decisions about what they do with their money and their resources.
“Loose standards get poor reporting,” he says, and those lead to the inability for consumers and investors to to make those smart decisions. So Corporate Knights—not just for the environment, or society, or the future of our planet, but for businesses and investors—is about bringing new standards of transparency into play. And about recognizing that sustainability is fundamentally connected with the idea of growth and future business health.
In this, they are allies of strong business models. Heaps agrees. “Sure, we’re going to see more accountability,” he says. “But the best defence is vigilance.” Then he pauses. “Alongside transparency and honesty.”
As we wind up and chat about the next issue of the Corporate Knights magazine, it feels entirely possible that Toby Heaps is part of a movement changing not just what we do in business and in sustainable living, but the way we think, too.