"You can be either out of the sector entirely because they all have issues or you can try to use the best-in-class analysis and try to invest in the companies within that sector that have better ESG policies and practices," says Joe Keefe, the president and CEO of Pax World Management. "And Pax World funds, like many funds in the SRI sector ... had more often than not tended to [rate BP higher] because of environmental and other ESG issues. I think [it was] the largest investor in alternative energy in the world."

In other words, despite the push to bring hard quantitative ESG data to the forefront, many managers say that robust metrics are going to be only part of the picture-single tiles in a vast mosaic that inevitably includes human error and value judgments.

"Quantitative data is often thought of as the finish line, but I think of it as the starting line," says Steven Lydenberg, the chief investment officer of Domini Social Investments, one of the companies that stayed out of BP.

"For example, in the oil and gas industry, in the mining industry, in the chemical industry and in the construction industries, fatalities-safety-is a key performance indicator," he says. "You can certainly compare companies across industries by the number of fatalities; that's one of the most simple, straightforward, easy numbers to use. Then you can go to the safety record, which is in terms of work hours lost, injuries per work hours, days lost per work due to injuries."

On the environmental side, the company looks at ozone depleting chemicals and volatile organic compounds (used in paint and coatings). "We look for dramatic reductions in VOCs that I would look for at a single company over time-so reductions over a three-to-five year period." For companies like Microsoft where safety isn't as much of an issue, he says he would look for employee benefits like flex time and telecommuting.

But even if the data is becoming more robust, that's not necessarily because more companies are offering it up. In fact, much of the information comes from intensive digging, OSHA databases and watchdog groups. That is changing, though, as both regulators demand more data and companies start to offer it voluntarily. As of January 1, the Environmental Protection Agency required large emitters of greenhouse gases to record and collect data on their emissions. Also in January, the SEC released guidelines for companies to disclose to investors how climate-change regulations will affect their business both directly and indirectly. The Global Reporting Initiative, an organization that develops guidelines for companies to report sustainability data, said that 80% of Fortune 250 companies now report corporate responsibility data, twice as many as in 2005.

However, says Julie Gorte, the senior vice president for sustainable development at Pax World: "It's not like people are tying it up in a nice bow in the 10-K."

To help analysts make judgments, data providers advertise different ways of slicing and dicing data. Asset 4 claims that its model is more dynamic because it can repurpose info from Thomson Reuters' international news apparatus. Bloomberg offers its users quick access through its ubiquitous machines. And Trucost, one of the companies behind Newsweek's green list, boasts that it doesn't stop with public data but instead relies on its environmental impact methodology.

"Bloomberg has a partial database because they rely on what companies disclose publicly," says Krosinsky.

"The whole trend out there is toward getting companies to report," says Krosinsky. "But what are they reporting, and are they actually useful pieces of information that the company provides? If the report ticks all the boxes and yet they still have incidents like in the Gulf of Mexico, I'm not so sure that reporting is the be all and end all."

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