The World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) has applied systems thinking to the UN SDGs to identify the who – the 2000 companies globally that will have a disproportionate influence on meeting the UN SDGs. With just a decade before climate change and inequality are beyond control and systemic there is a need for urgent action which goes beyond incremental change to get the world to where it needs to be.
SDG 2000: Systems thinking
The SDG2000 starts by looking at the seven transformations needed to meet the UN SDGs by 2030. They are: social, food and agriculture, decarbonisation and energy, circular, digital, urban and financial. WBA identified relevant industries that can positively and/or negatively impact these transformations with a focus on influence.
WBA then identified the 2000 ‘keystone companies’ within these industries based on five principles. The SDG2000 is a dynamic list and therefore it may change over time. We welcome your feedback on the SDG2000.
Identifying keystone companies
In July 2019, the World Benchmarking Alliance outlined in its report ‘Measuring what matters most‘ seven systems transformations we believe needed to accomplish the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
1 Social transformation
Achieve universal human development by respecting human rights, promoting equality and empowering people to pursue the opportunities and choices they value.
2 Food and agriculture transformation
Produce healthy and nutritious food to feed a growing world population, while staying within planetary boundaries, and offer farmers, fishers and their families a decent standard of living.
3 Decarbonisation and energy transformation
Provide universal access to modern energy services while significantly reducing the world’s dependency on carbon-based energy.
4 Circular transformation
Decouple consumption and production from natural resource use and design out waste and pollution.
5 Digital transformation
Harness the potential and benefits of digital technologies for all while managing risks, including safeguarding against undesirable effects.
6 Urban transformation
Create sustainable, inclusive and connected cities that are safe, resilient and clean.
7 Financial system transformation
Reorient the flow of resources and exercise good stewardship to accelerate the economy’s transition towards long-term sustainable development.
Between July 2019 and January 2020, WBA began identifying companies that can be catalysts for change and whose actions are vital for wider, systemic transformation. We refer to this list of the world’s most influential companies needed to achieve the SDGs as the SDG2000. It was first published in January 2020 and will be updated on an annual basis.
From transformations to industries
The starting point for each of the seven systems transformations was to identify the most relevant industries that can positively and/or negatively impact the transformation. This analysis was informed by scientific research, UN reports, (inter)government reports, industry publications, and research by civil society organisations. We particularly focused on the influence that specific industries have on shaping the transformations. The influence of industries can be positive, whereby the industry enables or accelerates the transformation; negative, whereby the industry hampers or negatively influences the transformation; or both, in which the industry can use its role to both negatively or positively contribute to the transformation. Industries can be linked to multiple transformations. For example, while food & beverage companies have an important role in ensuring sustainable production and providing healthy and nutritious food (food and agriculture transformation), they also play a vital role in reducing the need for single-use packaging (circular transformation). Similarly, while many companies producing electronic devices and equipment have an important role in enabling the digital transformation, e-waste is also the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, with a significant part of this waste ending up in landfills (circular transformation). Although both positive and negative influences were considered, some industries were excluded from SDG2000 on the grounds that large negative impact from business models or products and services meant their role in the transformation would be limited (e.g., companies that derive the majority of their revenues from the sale of tobacco, coal and weapons).
 C.P. Baldé, V. Forti, R. Kuehr, and P. Stegmann, 2017. The Global E-waste Monitor 2017. United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna.
From industries to keystone companies
WBA builds on leading academic research that identified the idea of keystone actors, inspired by the ‘keystone species’ term in ecology, to illustrate that the largest companies in a given industry can operate similarly to keystone species in ecological communities, meaning that they can have a disproportionate effect on the structure and the system in which they operate. Inspired by this concept, WBA has developed the idea of keystone companies. These draw on five principles that have guided the identification of companies for the SDG2000:
- The company dominates global production revenues and/or volumes within a particular sector.
- The company controls globally relevant segments of production and/or service provision.
- The company connects (eco)systems globally through subsidiaries and their supply chains.
- The company influences global governance processes and institutions.
- The company has a global footprint, particularly in developing countries.
For most industries, we used Eikon (Refinitiv) to screen for the largest companies based on revenues as the starting point. Revenues include consolidated subsidiaries where available. We then used a number of other keystone metrics depending on the system and industry, often using a combination of keystone metrics alongside the latest reported annual revenues (typically 2018). Examples of keystone metrics include assets under management (AUM), number of people served, number of subscribers, number of passengers, production volumes, and greenhouse gas emissions (principle 1). We also reviewed headquarter and subsidiary locations (principle 5). The top companies selected include public, private (including family-owned), and state-owned companies, and cooperatives. In order to ensure that the most influential and relevant players were included, we reviewed a large number of existing initiatives and comparative lists of companies to seek to ensure all relevant companies were considered through an extensive process of cross-checking.
Consideration was also given to the importance and role of particular sub-industries, business activities and segments of production/service provision in achieving the transformation (principle 2). For example, for the food and agriculture system transformation, specific food groups (such as dairy, fruit and vegetables, grains and oilseeds, livestock, seafood) are considered key in the shift to healthy diets. We ensured that key players engaged in these food groups were explicitly included. For the financial system transformation, for example, particular consideration was given to the role that different sub-industries play in the flow of capital including asset owners, asset managers, banks, and companies providing other financial services. For decarbonisation and energy, we looked at the scale of different scopes of greenhouse gas emissions by industries. For example, for companies in the heavy machinery & electrical equipment industry we assessed their potential to contribute to decarbonisation with a particular focus on scope 3 emissions (from product and service innovation). This type of research guided both the selection and exclusion of companies and also the total number of companies for each relevant industry.
More detailed research into companies helped us to better understand their relevance to the transformation. This was assessed by reviewing business models, product and service portfolios, geographic presence, consumer base, subsidiary networks and supply chains (principle 2 and 3).
Lastly, in order to ensure global relevance and spread, we specifically focused on including influential companies headquartered in emerging, frontier and developing markets (principle 5). In addition, some smaller companies were excluded due to overrepresentation or included due to underrepresentation of particular regions and/or countries in the sample. Further details on how WBA selects and benchmarks companies based upon their global footprint, particularly in developing countries, will be published later in 2020.
Due to the lack of comprehensive data we have not assessed companies systematically against principle 4 but have considered a wide range of factors such as reputation, research into the most well-known and influential brands globally, and membership of business/industry associations and business platforms.
We reviewed a wide range of industry classification systems at different stages of the research process. This included considering the Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS); the International Standard Industrial Classification of All Economic Activities (ISIC); the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS); Thomson Reuters Business Classification (TRBC); and numerous other industry-specific classifications.
None of the existing industry classifications were found to satisfactorily cover all the dimensions of the WBA systems approach. This was particularly notable in the digital system where fast-changing industry dynamics and business models make current industry classifications somewhat simplistic – and quickly out of date. Some classifications also had gaps or did not cover the global breadth of public, private and state-owned companies globally.
As a result, we relied primarily on TRBC to build initial lists and supplemented this with wide-ranging additional research. The SDG 2000 list uses an industry categorisation developed by WBA but based on TRBC. The classification by industry does not always indicate which companies will be included in which benchmarks. This is because the main industry classification of a company does not always reflect all of its diverse business impacts – particularly for diversified companies and conglomerates. The systems approach to benchmarking adopted by WBA helps to overcome this limitation.
In addition, industries can be relevant for multiple transformations. As a result, a number of companies feature in several different transformations.
Group level vs subsidiaries
WBA will seek to benchmark group-level companies and therefore in most cases the parent company is included in SDG 2000. However, we also researched and reviewed thousands of subsidiaries to guide our selection of keystone parent companies. Subsidiaries for which the parent company holds more than 50 percent ownership are included under the parent company. In cases where the name of a relevant subsidiary is different from that of the parent company, we have sought to mention the relevant subsidiary alongside the parent company. In some cases, due to the sheer number of relevant subsidiaries, it is not possible to list them all. Select brand names (where well-known but different from the group parent) have also been listed next to the main company name, but this is not intended to be a comprehensive listing of brands and subsidiaries.
 H. Österblom, J.-B. Jouffray, C. Folke, B. Crona, M. Troell, A. Merrie and J. Rockström, 2015. Transnational corporations as ‘keystone actors’ in marine ecosystems, PLOS One, 10(5).
From keystone companies to benchmarks
The 2000 companies identified represent the companies with the greatest potential to transform systems and influence outcomes on the SDGs. As these companies hold dominant positions in their respective industries and supply chains, they have the power to be active agents of change and play a key role in driving the transformations needed. However, this requires a different mindset and a move beyond pure financial performance and harm avoidance towards real measurable impact.
WBA develops benchmarks that show where industries and individual companies stand in their journey towards a more sustainable future, demonstrate what best practice looks like and pinpoint where more action is needed. By harnessing companies’ competitive spirit, benchmarking can promote a ‘race to the top’ in which leaders are motivated to do more, while laggards are motived to catch up. These benchmarks are free for everyone to use and continually improved through an open, multi-stakeholder dialogue. By virtue of being public and due to the way in which the data is presented, these benchmarks empower all stakeholders, from consumers and investors to employees and business leaders, with key data and insights to encourage sustainable business practices across all sectors. Acting as a fundamental accountability mechanism, WBA benchmarks shed light on the reality of corporate impact of these keystone companies today.
Each keystone company will be assessed against the transformation(s) to which it is linked. As a result, companies can be included in multiple benchmarks if they are linked to multiple transformations. All companies included in a WBA benchmark will be assessed on their contribution to the social transformation as this transformation impacts, and is impacted, by all other transformations, underpinning and enabling them.
Updates, feedback and changes
We recognise that the business landscape is ever changing, with mergers and acquisitions taking place across industries, and new companies emerging and growing rapidly. This also means the SDG2000 will change over time to reflect these realities. WBA will therefore seek to review and update the SDG2000 on an annual basis to reflect any changes necessary. This may involve adding or removing companies, as well as changing which systems they feature in.
To this end, we would very much welcome any feedback on keystone companies that should be included or excluded from the different systems, or other suggestions around the SDG2000.
Limited public disclosure and recent data
Due to the scale of our research we have relied on publicly available sources as well as data from a database. We have also sought to check some of this information with other sources to identify any potential missing companies or to exclude companies. However, particularly for private and state-owned companies, reporting may be out of date or not available. In some cases, this made it challenging to crosscheck information and find data on additional relevant keystone criteria.
As companies often serve many markets, produce a wide range of products and operate through different segments or subsidiaries, the classification of companies into specific sectors and industries according to largest revenue contribution can lead to the omission of relevant companies as they are classified in a different industry. We have sought to research individual companies and crosschecked this with information from other sources wherever possible to ensure relevant companies are included.
Lack of data on environmental and social metrics
The lack of coherent reporting on environmental and social issues and metrics, and the resulting limited availability of (comparable and quality) data, was a significant limitation for the selection of keystone companies. This widespread lack and inconsistency of data makes it challenging to assess potential impacts of companies on the transformations. Wherever possible, we used relevant criteria to guide the inclusion of companies by transformation. However, relevant, meaningful data is often missing, not publicly available or inconsistent across the universe of potentially relevant companies. For example, whereas greenhouse gas emissions and emission intensity would be a useful keystone indicator for industries relevant for the energy and decarbonisation transformation, this information is not publicly available at scale across the 2,000 keystone companies today. With our Alliance in the years ahead, we believe that WBA can play an instrumental role in encouraging and creating this much needed transparency as part of our work to build a movement to measure and incentivise business impact towards a sustainable future that works for all.