Exploring Social Origins in the Construction of ESG Measures
36 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2018 Last revised: 2 Dec 2020
Date Written: July 12, 2018
As both demand and supply for information about companies’ sustainability performance continues to grow, many investors complain that the ESG data universe is getting too complex and confusing. Several studies have shown how rating agencies and data vendors display very little agreement on how to construct and use ESG measures. While commending these findings, we argue that only studying how data diverges is missing the insights of a more substantial question about the why of this divergence. Taking a lens of “social construction”, we thus set out to explore the differences between ESG measures as a function of (a) data vendors’ diverse social origins and (b) their necessity to create a unique profile in a maturing market. Examining five cases of eight interconnected ESG data vendors and rating agencies, we thus show how the origin of each company (their founding principles, legal status, purpose, etc.) strongly influences its conception of sustainability, definition of materiality, and by extension, the way ESG issues are measured and sold. We find that data vendors can be characterized into groups of value-vs values-based organizations, and that dynamics of consolidation on the ESG market and the mainstreaming of ESG data use are linked to a shift from values-to value-driven investors in the ESG space. Finally, the paper highlights pathways into a new ESG research agenda which explores the impact of the here examined origins of metrics.
Keywords: ESG, Social Construction, Data Vendors, Non-Financial Measurement
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