Why naming a hardly known German company as the world’s most controversial company inadvertently makes a lot of sense.
Business bashing is a popular spectator sport in some quarters – sometimes justified, sometimes not. So there is certainly no shortage of strong contenders for the most controversial company contest. Who would be your pick for the 2019 shortlist? Perhaps one of the companies that led millions of people into opioid addiction? The biggest carbon dioxide emitter? Or someone from the big tech side that as many believe has ushered in a new, toxic era of surveillance capitalism?
Picking the unlucky winner is as difficult as it is subjective. But as is always the case these days big data and AI are riding to the rescue. They are claimed to power an evidence-infused attempt by a boutique ESG consultancy to identify the most controversial company in the world. According to the inevitable marketing pitch, a secret-sauce algorithm churns through a proprietary database of millions of new and old media mentions for more than 140,00 companies to bring science to the art of naming and shaming and to reveal the 2019 most controversial company in the world.
And as just announced last week, the winner is:
Tuev Sued? If you are not a German car owner (the company is best known there for carrying out the obligatory and feared periodic car inspections) or an expert in technical certification issues you may have never come across this name before.
Tuev Sued is one of the big players in the global certification-of-everything business. Born as the Duev (“Dampfkesselueberwachsungsverein” – steam boiler inspection association) in 1800 to bring technical oversight to the issue of exploding steam boilers during the industrial revolution, the Tuev Sued (and its brother) Tuev Nord have grown into multinational enterprises that provide technical audits and certification services for an ever-growing number of products, processes and service across industries and across the world.
Arguably the main reason why Tue Sued was picked as the most controversial company (besides a weighing in favor of novel entries that guarantees sustainable newsworthiness to an annual ranking now in its 10th edition) is that it is implicated in the infamous 2019 Brumadinhu dam disaster in Brazil. A collapse of a dam erected by a mining company unleashed a toxic mudflow on the downstream communities that killed more than 250 people. Tuev Sued had carried out technical inspections of the dam and allegedly assessed it as safe. The case is still in court, no conclusive verdicts have been reached.
So is it fair to put the spotlight so fully on a comparatively small technical certification outfit, rather than say the big mining company that built and ran the dam?
Irrespective of what one thinks about the merits of this choice, the case highlights what I would submit is one of the most fundamental and unresolved drivers of corporate irresponsibility: the persistent challenge to make all kinds of certification and assurance processes that are so essential to functioning markets and economies work as intended.
From the never-ending string of accounting and auditing scandals to the crucial role of rating agencies in the 2007+ financial crisis to emerging examples of greenwashing in the carbon market certification business, there as common thread: certification and assurance often fail to provide the independent, effective vetting that it is supposed to deliver.
Issues involved include:
- the under-resourcing of the inspection process as neither principal nor agent have strong interests in overly strict and deep inspections,
- pitching certification as loss leaders to open the door for upselling into other lucrative consulting services;
- borderline rubberstamping of certifications to secure repeat business and avoid being viewed as difficult in the industry and thus putting off other potential clients.
Strengthening liability, setting more stringent standards for the standards watchdogs, tightening compliance measures and building public reputational pressure go some way to rework incentives towards more credible certifications.
But at the end of the day they are more ameliorative than tackling the root problem:
As long as certification services are selected by and directly paid for by the very clients that are meant to be certified, assured, rated or audited and as long as certification is strictly a for-profit business there are fundamental conflicts of interests at the root of these services that put their efficacy and independence at risk.
Ideas of how to rewire these markets and business models abound yet so far the problem of thin political markets seems to hold: both certifiers and certified have strong interests to preserve the status quo and formidable lobbying power to advocate for this, while the dull technical nature of the issues at stake and the dispersed group of beneficiaries from alternative solutions prevent a forceful, concerted push for better arrangements.
Yet there is hope that this fundamental conflict of interest issue will gain more prominence in the policy and public debates very soon. The emerging transformational push to de-carbonize businesses and economies relies in part heavily on carbon credits, carbon offsets and other green-impact instruments whose efficacy and the very reason for existence relies on proper certification and assurance.
How to move beyond and away from issuer-directly-pays certification services will have to be an important part of the policy designs in the making.
Tuev Sued is a symptom of the problem – it is the systemic issue at the root of the case that justifies putting it into the spotlight – although it is unclear of the secret-sauce algorithm at work had this in mind when making the selection.
Let’s hope that in twenty years’ time the idea of a rating agency, a dam examiner, a medical device inspector or a carbon credit certifier being selected by and paid directly by the people they are supposed to pass an independent judgment on appears as strange as the notion that a pharmaceutical company would be able to choose between different agencies to get its drugs approved and directly funds large parts of their budgets.
Dr. Dieter Zinnbauer is a Marie-Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at CBS’ Department of Management, Society and Communication. His CBS researches focus on business as political actor in the context of big data, populism and “corporate purpose fatigue”. Twitter: @Dzinnbauer. Essays: https://medium.com/@Dzinnbauer. Working papers: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=1588618