The world’s most socially and environmentally responsible firms in the construction and building materials sector have been unveiled as part of a study of 45 of the world’s largest and most ethical companies.

In its Tomorrow’s Value Rating 2014 report, Norwegian business assurance outfit BVN GL studied 45 companies which were listed in the S&P Global 1200 Index and were also recognised as leaders in social and environmental responsibility by virtue of them being included on one of four leading world indexes for sustainability.

The report analysed their sustainability related performance in terms of innovation, stakeholder engagement, governance, value chain management and business strategy.

Of the 10 building and building materials sector outfits included in the study (the 10 largest companies in the sector which met both criteria), Swiss cement giant Holcim topped the list, followed by Amsterdam-based paint and coatings provider AkzonNobel and China Steel Corporation. Ludwigshafen (Germany) based chemicals giant BASF and Spanish design and civil construction outfit Ferrovial rounded out the top five.

Holcim also came out on top in terms of its management of impacts down the supply chain, while AkzoNobel took top spot for innovation and governance on sustainability issues. China Steel ranked best in terms of engagement and responsiveness to stakeholder concerns as well as the extent to which its sustainability efforts match its core strategy and efforts to manage business opportunities as well as risks.

In its report, BVN said a combination of urbanisation, intensifying wealth disparity, global warming and unsustainable use of natural resources meant responsible practices within the construction sector were becoming increasingly important.

It says leaders in this area have clearly defined carbon and energy reduction targets which capture impacts throughout the value chain. They also excel in innovation, are transparent in the way they tie performance to challenging targets and explain progress in the wider economic and political context.

Holcim, for example, has specific and measurable goals regarding waste, water and biodiversity, and poverty reduction stretching out as far as 2030 – including commitments to achieve zero net increase in absolute carbon emissions from 2013 levels and to shelter 100 million people at the base of the development pyramid.

Positive results are already visible: AkzoNobel has already come close to achieving its 2020 target of 20 per cent of revenue from eco-premium solutions with customer benefits, while China Steel says ‘green steel’ already comprises more than a quarter (27 per cent) of steel production.

There was still plenty of room for improvement, with only half of the companies studied being able to demonstrate reductions in water use, and only two – Holcim and BASF – having specific long term targets in this area. Some companies also lack commitments in social and supply chain issues such as health and safety, human rights.

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Commenting on the broader results across all sectors, DNV GL – Business Assurance business development manager Jon Woodhead said more needed to be done, with only half of all companies studied having specific and measurable targets in place and many still not having integrated sustainability risks and opportunities into their risk management approaches.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that, as a global society and economy, we are reaching the limits to traditional growth,” he said. “Unfortunately, only a handful of even the top-performing companies in the TVR seem to be preparing properly for a paradigm shift in how we do business.”

Across all sectors, Unilever was considered the best company, followed by Holcim, Intel, Nestlé and Diageo.