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First-ever measurement of societal impact compared to traditional ESG risk management of 55 top Swiss companies

Comment on the publication of the Green Business CEO Rating 2021 in the Bilanz of 25.6.2021 and PME of 30.6.2021

The time has finally come, with the launch of the Green Business CEO Rating, we can for the first time compare corporate performance from the “inside-out” and “outside-in” perspectives (Dyllick & Muff, 2016). The 50 largest Swiss companies were thus assessed for the first time on the two core dimensions of corporate sustainability. To this day, sustainability management is still largely equated with corporate risk management (or: inside-out). Today, however, it is about much more: positive contributions to solving the major societal challenges that cannot be mastered without business and companies (or: outside-in). These challenges can and should be recognized and exploited as new areas of business rather than just as risks. We are convinced that only in this way can companies achieve a relevant social impact in areas such as climate protection and energy supply, circular economy, networked mobility, sustainable nutrition or crisis-resistant healthcare systems.

To encourage this broader thinking, the Green Business CEO Rating measures both risk management and the positive impact of companies:  

  • Inside-out: Sustainability management as risk management focuses on reducing costs and risks for the company and expressing the perception of a social responsibility. It primarily serves to safeguard the company and is based on findings from ESG ratings. An inside-out perspective dominates, of the company and its impact on society. The results mostly consist of reductions in the company’s negative impacts (CO2 pollution, resource consumption, waste, emissions).
  • Outside-in: The aim here is to make positive contributions to solving society’s sustainability challenges. These require an outside-in perspective, a view from society to the company and from the future to the present. This perspective is based on the impact of the company on society as reflected in legislative processes such as the European Green Deal or on the capital market in the context of impact investing and an explicit purpose orientation of companies. Their measurement is based on contributions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs.

The “Green Business CEO Rating” shows the positive social and environmental impact of the best large companies in Switzerland. For the first time, it evaluates the performance of companies in terms of a positive contribution to solving pressing global challenges.

  • For the sake of simplicity, the inside-out perspective is equated with the familiar ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) assessment.
  • The outside-in perspective is briefly and succinctly referred to as “impact”.
Figure 1: Overview of the methodology


The sustainability performance of companies can be divided into four quadrants. They are formed by the two axes “risk management” (ESG) and “positive impact on society and the environment” (IMPACT) (see Figure 2). On a scale of 10, the measured mean value of all companies is 4.0, which shows how great the potential still is to improve on both axes.


Here you will find companies with a proactive commitment to protecting their company against sustainability risks, which are also located in markets that have a positive impact on the SDGs. Here are the top 5 CEOs with their companies, e.g. Swiss Re, Migros and Novartis. These companies are in socially relevant markets that have led them early on to take a proactive stance on societal and environmental issues. In particular, a reinsurer like Swiss Re is an excellent example of a company that had to recognize the high costs of natural and climate damage – for society and for itself – at an early stage and derived strategic consequences from this. But companies such as Migros or Coop, have also been directly confronted with ecological and health problems in their markets and have felt the impact of society’s expectations. They took an effective stance early on.


Here you will find companies that offer products and services in markets with great relevance for society and the environment. Either because they have always been positioned in these markets, or because they have deliberately developed SDG-relevant services to solve social problems.  They are inconspicuous in terms of their risk management, which may also be due to a lack of transparency or reporting. Examples of such companies are Stadler Rail, Partners Group or Baloise.

Group 3 – ACTIVE

Here we find companies with an active commitment to reducing their negative impact, serving markets with only a low positive impact on society and the environment. Companies such as SGS, Holcim and Schindler are active and committed in their risk management. However, their products and services currently have only a weak impact on solving sustainability challenges in the sense of the SDGs.

Group 4 – PASSIVE

This category includes companies with little or only just emerging interest in sustainability, which are active in markets with only minor relevance for society and the environment. Likewise, a company is listed here if it communicates its sustainability performance in a very non-transparent manner. Examples of such companies are Swatch, Ems Chemie or SFS Group. Companies in this group have neither a good ESG rating nor are they positioned with their products and services in SDG impact relevant markets.

Figure 2: The positive impact orientation of the 55 companies studied

The four categories in Figure 2 result from the two company ratings – on the one hand, the ESG Rating to safeguard the company and, on the other, the SDG-Impact Rating regarding a positive contribution to society and the environment. The corresponding positionings show well where companies stand, both in terms of their commitment to sustainability and in terms of the impact of their products and services. The differences between the two rating methods make it clear that these are quite different assessment perspectives (see Figure 1).

  • The ESG rating for the traditional CSR activities of a company: The ESG best practices data of the ISS rating agency focus on the classic ESG criteria (environmental, social, responsible corporate governance) and are based on a risk perspective of sustainability. Sustainability management as risk management focuses on reducing costs and risks for the company and expressing the perception of a social responsibility (inside-out perspective). The results mostly consist of reductions in the company’s negative impacts (CO2 burdens, resource consumption, waste, emissions), but not in positive contributions to solving societal sustainability challenges.
  • The SDG Impact Rating for the forward-looking “positive impact” perspective: The SDG Analytics data from Standard & Poor’s (S&P)/Trucost rating agency analyzes the positive and negative impact of each company with respect to all 17 SDGs (UN Sustainable Development Goals). The focus is on the view from society to the company and from the future to the present. This outside-in perspective is based on the impact of the company and the social orientation of its products and services.

It makes a big difference whether the company’s own protection against sustainability risks is assessed using ESG data or whether the company’s social impact is measured in relation to the SDGs. There are companies that perform well in terms of ESG protection and those that perform well in terms of SDG impact. The focus here is on the alignment of sustainability activities, not on the company’s commitment to sustainability. “Active” companies can put a lot of effort into protecting their company from sustainability risks and demonstrating performance against the multiple measurement indicators without doing much for SDG-relevant impact. On the other hand, “effective” companies achieve high SDG impact values due to their product and market orientation, without this necessarily requiring any special effort.

Ultimately, however, it is not a question of playing off performance in one area against the other.  Both areas are important and have been weighted equally for the company rating.

We are interested in your opinion. We look forward to your comments!

Author: Katrin Muff PhD

Dr. Katrin Muff is Director of the Institute for Business Sustainability in Lucerne, Switzerland and Professor of Practice at the LUISS Business School in Rome, Italy. She consults leaders and boards in business sustainability and strategic transformation, and runs an executive program together with Thomas Dyllick. Her book “Five Superpowers for Co-creators” provides insights about issue-centered multi-stakeholder processes. She brings 20 years of international strategic and general management experience in Europe, Australia, North America and Russia and a decade of leadership in business education. www.KatrinMuff.com

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