Journal:Quality and environmental management systems as business tools to enhance ESG performance: A cross-regional empirical study
|Full article title||Quality and environmental management systems as business tools to enhance ESG performance: A cross-regional empirical study|
|Journal||Environment, Development and Sustainability|
|Author(s)||Ronalter, Louis M.; Bernardo, Merce; Romaní, Javier M.|
|Author affiliation(s)||Universitat de Barcelona|
|Primary contact||Email: ronalterlouis at gmail com|
|Distribution license||Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International|
The growing societal and political focus on sustainability at the global level is pressuring companies to enhance their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance to satisfy respective stakeholder needs and ensure sustained business success. With a data sample of 4,292 companies from Europe, East Asia, and North America, this work aims to prove through a cross-regional empirical study that quality management systems (QMSs) and environmental management systems (EMSs) represent powerful business tools to achieve this enhanced ESG performance. Descriptive and cluster analyses reveal that firms with QMSs and/or EMSs accomplish statistically significant higher ESG scores than companies without such management systems. Furthermore, the results indicate that operating both types of management systems simultaneously increases performance in the environmental and social pillar even further, while the governance dimension appears to be affected mainly by the adoption of EMSs alone.
To the best of the authors’ knowledge, such large-scale, cross-regional analysis of the impact of QMSs and EMSs on ESG performance is absent from the literature, thus paving the way for pioneering academic research. The study is grounded in stakeholder theory and demonstrates to managers how the implementation of management systems can assist in successfully translating stakeholders’ sustainability concerns into actionable business practice. Furthermore, it allows decision-makers to gain insight into the strengths and weaknesses of QMSs and EMSs for tackling specific ESG issues and highlights the performance advantages of combining both management systems. The work also depicts to policymakers how corporate sustainable performance (CSP) can be improved by fostering management systems adoption, thereby emphasizing the importance of supporting and facilitating the diffusion of these systems.
Keywords: corporate sustainable performance, environmental management systems, ESG performance, quality management systems, sustainability
A significant number of companies worldwide rely on management systems to improve corporate operations and address stakeholders’ needs systematically. Given that achieving “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” nowadays represents a normative concept, corporate executives are under increasing pressure to fulfil one particular stakeholder demand: making their companies more sustainable.
For example, consumer attitudes towards sustainable products and services are increasingly positive and investors are placing increasing value on data on sustainability-related issues for financial commitments. In this context, such stakeholders often consider firms’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) scores in their decision-making process and, in return, companies that apply ESG practices can improve stakeholders’ trust by accumulating social capital and strengthening attachment to the firm. Scholars also devote a great deal of attention to the ESG concept, which has emerged as a measure of companies’ corporate sustainable performance (CSP).
When it comes to researching CSP in relation to management systems, however, academics focus more on investigating the benefits related to specific issues such as reduced emissions and sustainable supply chains, as opposed to connecting management systems with the broader ESG concept as a framework for the various CSP demands of stakeholders. Few studies consider ESG ratings alongside management systems. Broadstock et al., for example, state that to achieve higher scores in the environmental pillar, companies must perform well in environmental management systems (EMS) certification. Furthermore, Schmid et al. conclude that ESG themes may be anchored in quality management systems (QMSs), and Chams et al. deduce that firms with QMSs are less reliant on financial capital to improve ESG ratings. Nevertheless, to the best of the authors’ knowledge, there is a shortage of academic studies that connect management systems to ESG performance and empirically analyze their relationship, which is evidenced by the lack of corresponding search results in databases like Web of Science and Scopus.
Such studies would provide valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of individual management systems in terms of meeting specific environmental, social, and/or governance needs. This knowledge would make it possible to draw managerial conclusions regarding which management systems to implement and combine to satisfy certain stakeholder CSP demands. Thus, the aim of this work is to start filling this research gap by empirically proving that QMSs and EMSs, which are the most widely adopted management systems on a global level, represent powerful business tools to achieve enhanced ESG performance, by answering the following three research questions (RQs):
- RQ1: Do companies that operate QMSs and/or EMSs achieve statistically significant higher ESG scores than firms without such management systems?
- RQ2: Which ESG issues are positively impacted by the implementation of QMSs and/or EMSs?
- RQ3: Do companies that apply both QMSs and EMSs simultaneously achieve higher ESG performance than firms that operate with only one of these management systems?
To answer these RQs, this study presents a comprehensive exploratory literature review and both descriptive and cluster analyses of ESG data from 2019 for 4,292 companies spread among the three leading global economic areas: Europe, East Asia, and North America. Refinitiv Eikon is used as the data source. The descriptive analysis describes the fundamental characteristics of the data and measures central tendencies among the sample groups with or without management systems. The cluster analysis gradually classifies the sample based on similarities, thus allowing patterns to be defined between companies with QMSs, EMSs, or no such management systems.
This paper contributes to the academic literature by directly connecting QMSs and EMSs to the ESG concept and by empirically proving at a global level that both management system types serve as powerful business tools for enhancing ESG scores. The study helps corporate executives to understand the ESG-related strengths inherent in QMSs and EMSs and, in addition, highlights how combining these management systems can impact a corporation’s sustainable performance in different ESG categories. Furthermore, the results give policymakers an insight into the positive relationship between management systems and CSP, as well as the regional and industrial differences in ESG scores, thus emphasizing the importance of pushing forward with the international standardization of best practices in management as well as their global diffusion.
The paper continues in six sections. The next section provides extensive background information on management systems and ESG ratings. Then the data sampling process and methodologies applied are explained, followed by the findings. The paper closes with discussion and some final conclusions.
In accordance with the increasing stakeholder focus on CSP, this paper follows the reasoning that companies must not only fulfil obligations to their shareholders in order to be successful, but that the interests of multiple parties with stakes in the social and financial performance of the firm must be taken into account. This aligns with the concept of management systems, which are directed at satisfying specific stakeholder needs (as outlined in the management system's underlying standards), as well as the ESG concept, which is linked to numerous stakeholders, including society, suppliers, employees, and shareholders. Thus, this study is grounded in stakeholder theory, which goes beyond simply maximizing the wealth of owners to acknowledging “any group or individual who is affected by or can affect the achievement of an organization’s objectives”, while addressing “morals and values explicitly as a central feature of managing organizations.”
In general, Freeman’s stakeholder theory offers a pragmatic approach to a strategy that urges firms to be aware of their relationships with all stakeholders in order to become more successful. At the moment, the stakeholder theory appears to be the prevailing theory in CSP-related research. Thereby, it should be acknowledged that (i) different stakeholders influence organizations in different ways; (ii) some stakeholders have more influence over organizations than others; (iii) not all stakeholders might be regarded as legitimate stakeholders by organizations—in this regard, stakeholder theory is closely related to legitimacy and institutional theories “in the sense that only those with legitimate claims and institutional identification can be considered stakeholders”—and (iv) existing organization/stakeholder relations are not static but can change.
Developments in relationships in any direction might be induced by changes in material interests of either side, emergence of contingent factors, changes in the sets of ideas held by stakeholders and/or organizations, or institutional support changes. Nowadays, we witness increasing contingent factors such as those related to global climate change or pandemics, causing more and more stakeholder groups, including shareholders, to adjust their material interests and to value sustainable development as an increasingly important aspect. In alignment, the institutional support for CSP increases as visible in policy making and media coverage. Hence, to ensure sustained business success, this study argues that companies must be aware of the environmental, social, and governance demands of stakeholders and address them accordingly by using suitable business tools. Therefore, the following exploratory literature review on management systems and ESG ratings emphasizes the stakeholder focus inherent in both concepts.
Management systems are a set of procedures to be followed to achieve stakeholder satisfaction concerning specific demands, thus a “process of systemizing how things are done.” They are implemented to handle stakeholders’ needs systematically in both internal and external organizational contexts and are aimed at the continuous improvement of operations and procedures. Management systems can be classified as quality, environmental, or occupational health and safety (OHS) systems, among others, depending on their objective. The core elements of management systems are often defined in management system standards (MSSs), and compliant companies can receive certification if the standard allows it. These MSSs are developed and published by national and international bodies, the most famous being the International Organization for Standardization (ISO); its ISO 9001 for QMSs and ISO 14001 for EMSs are the most commonly implemented and certified MSSs worldwide.
In general, a QMS is the means by which quality management practices—including quality planning, quality control, quality assurance, and quality improvement—are turned into an integral part of an organization that directly affects the way it conducts business. An EMS, on the other hand, seeks to make organizations both more competitive and more environmentally responsible by adapting techniques aimed at reducing environmental impacts such as waste reduction and process/product redesign. The implementation of such management systems results in various benefits. For example, QMSs are positively correlated with business performance, as companies improve the efficiency of their processes, provide their customers with added value, enhance customer satisfaction and, ultimately, generate more revenue. Similarly, EMSs positively impact the performance of firms due to savings in resource input and energy consumption, increased efficiency, and better profitability. However, the adoption benefits depend on the individual circumstances of firms. Operating management systems alongside comparable practices, for example, might be less beneficial for companies’ financial performance due to the redundancy of different processes aimed at similar goals related to stakeholder satisfaction.
ESG ratings and scores
ESG ratings are company assessments based on an evaluation of environmental, social, and governance matters whose individual weightings result in an overall score. They are provided by specialized rating agencies, whose expertise makes them a key reference point for firms, financial markets, and scholars regarding CSP data and which emerged in response to an increased demand for social and environmental information. Rating agencies typically use their own research methodologies , which are based mainly on publicly available information, third-party research, and corporate reports.
Applying ESG practices is generally aligned with stakeholder theory, as the concept is linked to numerous stakeholders. Furthermore, ESG scores play a crucial role “in helping stakeholders apprehend, evaluate, and manage the increasingly complex, multi-faceted nature of business ethics and sustainability.” They serve as a standard for comparison and set benchmarks for further improvement. Managing ESG issues responsibly increases companies’ integrity within society and stakeholders’ trust, thus influencing the economic performance of firms. Therefore, companies with high ESG ratings might enjoy better market and financial performance, although there is no univocal consensus on how that should be approached. Due to increasing public awareness of sustainability issues and the corresponding corporate acknowledgement, the number of firms disclosing ESG data is rapidly increasing.
However, ESG ratings also face criticism. As the concept has no fixed boundaries, the validity of ratings is questioned, since the various rating agencies view the ESG pillars differently and, moreover, use different weighting strategies to compile the final scores. Another set of criticism concerns the quality of the data underlying the scores. To mitigate these key concerns related to ESG ratings, this study utilizes data from Thomson Reuters, whose ESG database is one of the market leaders and is both used and accepted by fellow scholars.
To justify researching the role of QMSs and EMSs as business tools to enhance ESG ratings, this work clusters their adoption benefits by ESG pillar (see Table 1) and, subsequently, derives corresponding hypotheses about their impact on ESG performance.
Benefits regarding the environmental pillar
EMS adoption leads to various environmental-related benefits, such as decreased and more efficient use of resources, and facilitates the implementation of environmental management practices regarding green product design, procurement, production, logistics, and packaging. Furthermore, EMSs enable companies to reduce emissions and the risk of environmental accidents. Environmental innovation capabilities and enhanced problem solving with regard to technologies and procedures might also evolve. With regard to QMSs, these can reduce waste and, furthermore, positively impact environmental process innovations, especially for supply chain management, a crucial organizational element of CSP. In addition, quality management “can help support necessary stakeholder management in sustainable development.” In conclusion, the following hypotheses are derived:
- H1: Companies operating with QMSs achieve higher performance scores in the environmental pillar than firms without QMSs.
- H2: Companies operating with EMSs achieve higher performance scores in the environmental pillar than firms without EMSs.
Both management systems present several positive effects when it comes to workforce, community, and product responsibility. Regarding human rights, no specific academic research was discovered. However, EMS implementation increases legal and regulatory compliance, which implies a certain level of conformity with basic human rights. Important benefits related to the workforce are increased employee motivation and better internal communication. With respect to community, both management systems result in improved relationships with suppliers and other key stakeholders, as stated in the standards, among others. Regarding product responsibility, management systems increase customer satisfaction, communication, and relationships, as well as product and service quality. Hence, the hypotheses related to this pillar are as follows:
- H3: Companies operating with QMSs achieve higher performance scores in the social pillar than firms without QMSs.
- H4: Companies operating with EMSs achieve higher performance scores in the social pillar than firms without EMSs.
Benefits regarding the governance pillar
Positive links have been revealed between management systems and the management of organizations. QMSs enhance internal organization and operations, increase the commitment of management to best quality practices, and improve management-employee relationships. EMSs result in better awareness of environmental issues among both management and employees, as well as enhanced internal organization. Regarding corporations’ effectiveness with respect to the equal treatment of shareholders, no academic studies revealing specific relationships were found. Regarding CSR strategies, EMS adoption leads to improved CSR activities (as incorporating CSR principles is closely related to EMS principles), and QMSs provide a structural framework that facilitates the adoption of CSR policies, strategies, and activities. Thus, hypotheses five and six are deduced:
- H5: Companies operating with QMSs achieve higher performance scores in the governance pillar than firms without QMSs.
- H6: Companies operating with EMSs achieve higher performance scores in the governance pillar than firms without EMSs.
Benefits of operating both management systems simultaneously
Table 1 reveals that QMSs and EMSs lead to distinct CSP benefits. Consequently, operating both management systems simultaneously should enable firms to cover an even broader range of ESG issues. Moreover, having EMSs alongside QMSs could give rise to synergy effects, and both management systems together could lead to stronger business performance. In addition, the benefits of integrating the management systems might also play a pivotal role. Although the sample used in this study does not reveal information regarding the integration level, integration benefits should be taken into account, as most organizations with multiple management systems do actually integrate them. ESG-related integration advantages include the improved adoption of cleaner production technologies, greater motivation among staff, better partnerships with key stakeholders, and improvements in the organizational culture. Therefore, the literature makes it possible to hypothesize the following:
- H7: Companies operating with both QMSs and EMSs achieve higher performance scores in the environmental pillar than firms with only either QMSs or EMSs.
- H8: Companies operating with both QMSs and EMSs achieve higher performance scores in the social pillar than firms with only either QMSs or EMSs.
- H9: Companies operating with both QMSs and EMSs achieve higher performance scores in the governance pillar than firms with only either QMSs or EMSs.
Figure 1 offers a graphic summary of the nine hypotheses outlined in this section and reveals their connection to the RQs formulated in the introduction. The ESG variables displayed (V1 to V16), as well as the statistical methods used for testing the hypotheses, are further explained in the following section.
To test the hypotheses, ESG data from companies located in Europe (i.e., E.U., U.K., and European Free Trade Association [EFTA] states), East Asia (i.e., China, Japan, and four tiger states), and North America (i.e., U.S. and Canada) were retrieved and analyzed. The country clustering considers geographic regions with comparable economic and human development status, shared commercial relationships, and common regulatory environments. The analyses consider the 19 variables listed in Table 2. Of those variables, 16 aim to measure ESG performance (V1 to V16) and three serve as control variables (CV1 to CV3), as empirical studies on both ESG ratings and management systems have shown that results are likely to be influenced by industrial sector, region, and company size.
The first step in the sampling process involves searching for reliable ESG data. Therefore, Thomson Reuters Eikon, also known as Refinitiv Eikon (formerly ASSET4), is used, as it offers one of the largest ESG databases with ratings for over 10,000 companies worldwide. Refinitiv Eikon calculates 10 ESG category scores, which evaluate the environmental (V5, V6, V7), social (V9, V10, V11, V12), and governance (V14, V15, V16) dimensions. The category scores are based on numerous data points and summarized in the respective pillar scores (V4, V8, V13), which together result in the overall score. (V1) In addition, the ESG combined score (V2) takes into account scandals relating to any of Refinitiv Eikon’s twenty-three ESG controversy topics (V3). All scores are expressed in values between 0 (worst) and 100 (best).
The second step consists of retrieving the aforementioned data for companies headquartered in the regions of interest. Refinitiv Eikon allows users to filter by companies that use QMSs and EMS-certified organizations. The third step involves filtering these data for 2015 through to 2019 to ensure that the companies have been running their management systems for at least five consecutive years. This is done to ensure that the sample firms have accumulated experience of working with management systems to avoid distorting the ESG data with short-term influences that might occur straight after implementing management systems. In addition, the filtering by time considers the renewal of certified management systems after a three-year period. To ensure data quality, the fourth step consists of removing all companies that lack information, i.e., that present no value for any of the 19 variables.
The sampling process was performed on November 15, 2020, resulting in data on 4,292 companies, which are classified into the following four sample groups:
- Group 1: Companies without a QMS or an EMS
- Group 2: Companies with a QMS but no EMS
- Group 3: Companies with an EMS but no QMS
- Group 4: Companies with both a QMS and an EMS
As illustrated in Table 3, most companies in the sample have not been operating any QMS or EMS (74.5%) consecutively between 2015 and 2019. Firms operating both management systems represent the second largest group (17.4%), and corporations with either a QMS (2.9%) or an EMS (5.1%) constitute less than 10% of the sample.
Regarding sectors, most firms are engaged in finance (27.5%), consumer cyclicals (15.2%), industry (13.5%), technology (12.0%), or healthcare (11.0%). The geographical distribution shows that the majority of the companies is from North America (53.8%), while the number of European (23.4%) and East Asian (22.8%) enterprises is roughly equal. The percentage shares of the four sample groups per region reveal that, whereas a significant portion of the sample in Europe (45.3%) and East Asia (38.8%) runs management systems, companies in North America are much more likely to operate without them (88.7%). This is consistent with the fact that the 10 countries with the most ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certifications are based predominantly in Europe and East Asia, while neither the U.S. nor Canada appear in the top 10 ranking. Furthermore, the sample presents a well-distributed cross section of company sizes, which are measured by market capitalization. Small (market capitalization < USD 1 billion), medium (< 5 billion) and large companies (> 5 billion) each make up about one third of the sample.
The sample is analyzed with IBM SPSS Statistics 25 and StataSE 16. First, a descriptive analysis is performed to describe the basic features and characteristics of the dataset. This makes it possible to explain and validate the research findings and serves as a basis for further quantitative analysis, which is carried out in the framework of a cluster analysis. The cluster analysis is designed to produce a logical structure concerning ESG performance that is easy to read and interpret so that similarities can be analyzed.
The descriptive analysis consists of four steps. First, the full sample is analyzed to describe the ESG performance of all four sample groups in comparison. Second, data normality is tested with the Kolmogorov–Smirnov test and the Shapiro–Wilk test. As the sample does not present a normal distribution of data, the nonparametric Kruskal–Wallis test is performed in the third step to evaluate the statistical significance of differences. Moreover, the Dunn–Bonferroni post hoc test is conducted and Cohen’s d is calculated to determine the sample groups between which these statistically significant differences exist and to what extent. Fourth, the Kruskal–Wallis test, the Dunn–Bonferroni test, and Cohen’s d are performed and analyzed for the single control variables; each company size, each region, and each sector (except for the academic and educational services sector due to the small sample size). This is done to detect possible influences and potential biases of the control variables. The descriptive analysis is presented in the next section.
The cluster analysis considers the 10 ESG category scores and is conducted in three subsequent steps. First, the single-linkage method is applied to detect and exclude outliers that might distort the classification; furthermore, hierarchical methods are applied to produce a small number of clusters and distances are measured to evaluate similarities and dissimilarities. To obtain homogeneous groups with minimum variances, the Ward method is used. Such hierarchical clustering is the most widely applied methodology in cluster analysis. This first step results in two clusters. Second, the Mann–Whitney U test is performed to verify the clustering after ensuring that the cluster analysis samples are also not normally distributed via the Kolmogorov–Smirnov test and the Shapiro–Wilk test. Third, the clusters are analyzed. This cluster analysis is presented in the next section.
The prior Figure 2 summarizes these methodological steps, their application, and how they fit into the structure of the paper.
Step 1: Descriptive analysis of the full sample
The descriptive analysis of the full sample is summarized in Table 4. As shown, Group 4 reveals the best performance as measured by the mean and median of the ESG score (V1) and the ESG combined score (V2), whereas Group 3 performs second best, Group 2 third best, and Group 1 exhibits the lowest values. With respect to the controversy score (V3), Group 1 presents the highest mean. However, this outperformance might be due to the fact that Group 1 has the highest percentage of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) (74.7%), which are less likely than their bigger counterparts to feature in the global media. The environmental (V4) and social pillars (V8) show the same performance pattern as the overall score, while Group 3 performs best in the governance dimension (V13). The sample groups rank nearly the same for most ESG category scores as for the respective ESG pillar scores. The only exceptions are emissions (V3) and workforce (V9) matters, which are highest in Group 3. The overall score and pillar scores are illustrated in the prior Fig. 3 in the form of four box plots.
Step 2: Test of data normality
Data normality is tested with the Kolmogorov–Smirnov and Shapiro–Wilk tests. Only variables V1, V2, and V13 have an approximately normal distribution for Group 2, as assessed by the Kolmogorov–Smirnov test (p > 0.05). However, as assessed by the Shapiro–Wilk test, only V1 and V2 have an approximately normal distribution for Group 2 (p > 0.05). When testing data normality for the full sample rather than for the four sample groups, the results of both tests indicate that the data are in fact not normally distributed.
Step 3: Kruskal–Wallis test, Dunn–Bonferroni post hoc test and Cohen’s d
Therefore, the nonparametric Kruskal–Wallis test is used to analyze the statistical significance of the differences between sample groups. As demonstrated in Table 5, there are differences for all 16 ESG indicators regarding the central tendencies between the four sample groups (p < 0.05).
The Dunn–Bonferroni test is used to reveal the sample groups, between which there are statistically significant differences. Table 6 provides an overview of the post hoc test. In addition, the effect size is quantitatively measured by Cohen’s d to evaluate the magnitude of these differences, as shown in Table 7.
The Dunn–Bonferroni test confirms H1 to H6, as companies with QMSs or EMSs achieve statistically significant higher performance scores in the environmental (V4), social (V8), and governance (V13) pillars than firms without these management systems. Furthermore, groups two, three, and four present statistically significant higher overall ESG scores (V1, V2) as compared to Group 1, thereby making it possible to answer RQ1 positively. With respect to RQ2, the descriptive analysis of the full data sample reveals that Group 2 has significantly higher ratings for nine areas (except V15), while groups three and four present enhanced performance in all 10 ESG category scores, again compared to Group 1. The values for Cohen’s d confirm these statements.
Furthermore, Group 3 achieves significantly higher ESG scores (V1, V2) than Group 2 due to significant outperformance in the environmental (V4) and governance (V13) dimensions; even though the management (V14) and shareholder (V15) scores do not differ significantly, companies with EMSs achieve considerably better values in the CSR strategy category (V16), which causes the outperformance in the pillar’s rating. Although the consolidated social pillar score (V8) is not significantly different between groups two and three, companies with QMSs significantly outperform their counterparts with EMSs in terms of product responsibility (V12), while underperforming in the workforce (V9) and human rights (V10) categories. Thus, to answer RQ1 more precisely, it is concluded that EMSs appear to represent more effective business tools for enhanced ESG performance than QMSs. With respect to RQ2, it is important to mention that both management systems apparently share common strengths (V11, V14, V15), but also possess individual advantages (QMS: V12; EMS: V5, V6, V7, V9, V10, V16).
In terms of RQ3, Group 4 statistically outperforms Group 2 in the overall (V1, V2) and pillar (V4, V8, V9) scores, thus confirming H7 to H9 with respect to companies with QMSs only. There are no significant differences compared to Group 3; nonetheless, the mean and median values for Group 4 are higher in the overall scores (V1, V2) as well as the environmental (V4) and social (V8) dimensions, except for emissions (V6) and workforce (V9) matters. However, for the governance categories and pillar score (V13, V14, V15, V16), companies with EMSs alone present the highest mean and median values. In summary, H7 to H9 are confirmed with respect to firms with QMSs only, but not with respect to companies with EMSs only.
Step 4: Descriptive analysis of the control variables' sub-samples
Company size (CV1) appears to affect the magnitude of differences, as the Dunn–Bonferroni test reveals far more statistically significant differences between the four sample groups when it comes to large companies as opposed to SMEs. Furthermore, it is noticeable that large companies on average achieve higher ESG ratings than small firms. Nonetheless, companies with QMSs and/or EMSs significantly outperform firms without management systems in the overall ESG scores (V1, V2), regardless of their size. The same is true for the environmental (V4) and social (V8) dimensions, thus confirming H1 to H4. However, in the governance pillar (V13), small firms with EMSs and medium-sized firms with QMSs lack this statistically significant outperformance, thereby only partially supporting H5 and H6.
On average, European companies achieve higher ESG ratings than East Asian or North American firms, but companies with QMSs or EMSs achieve significantly better ESG performance (V1, V2) than companies without these management systems, regardless of the location (CV2). This outperformance also holds true for the social dimension (V8). However, European firms with QMSs lack this statistically significant outperformance in the governance dimension (V13) and, in East Asia, also in the environmental dimension (V4). For East Asia, the Kruskal–Wallis test even retains its null hypothesis for the shareholders score (V15). Hence, the analysis fully confirms H2, H3, H4, and H6, while only partially supporting H1 and H5.
Moreover, the nature of business operations (CV3) impacts ESG performance per sample group. For basic materials, consumer (non-)cyclicals, energy, industry, and telecommunication services, the Kruskal–Wallis test retains its null hypothesis for the shareholders score (V15) and for the utilities sector also for the management category (V14) and, conclusively, the whole governance pillar score (V13). The statistically significant higher ESG performance (V1, V2) of companies with management systems holds true for all sectors except for energy, telecommunication, and utilities, in which companies with QMSs do not present significantly better performance than companies without management systems. The same pattern appears for the same sectors as well as for basic materials for the environmental (V4) and social (V8) dimensions. For the energy sector, even companies with EMSs fail to outperform in the social pillar (V8). Regarding the governance pillar (V13), there are numerous sectors in which Group 2 (consumer (non-)cyclicals, energy, finance, industry, technology, telecommunications, utilities) and Group 3 (consumer non-cyclicals, technology, utilities) do not show statistically significant higher values than Group 1. Hence, the analysis fully confirms H2 and only partially supports H1 and H3 to H6.
Although H7 to H9 are confirmed with respect to QMSs in the full sample analysis, the analyses of control variables deliver a mixed picture. Despite the fact that H7 holds true for medium and large firms (CV1) and all three regions (CV2) against Group 2, statistically significant higher ESG scores in the environmental pillar (V4) are revealed only for industrial companies when it comes to business sectors (CV3). H8 does not hold true against Group 2 when location is considered (CV2). Significant outperformance in the social pillar (V8) is visible only in the analysis of large firms (CV1) and companies classified as industrial (CV3). The same (CV1, CV2) accounts for H9 related to the governance dimension (V13), but for technology companies (CV3). Thus, although the full sample analysis confirms H7 to H9 with respect to firms with QMSs only, the analyses of the control variables reveal numerous exceptions, which calls for more detailed research in the future.
Table 8 shows the sample group with the highest mean value for the overall and pillar scores per control variable. This overview strengthens the tendency observed in Group 4 to perform best in terms of the ESG score (V1) and the environmental (V4) and social pillars score (V8), regardless of the control variables, while the governance pillar (V13) appears to be affected most by the adoption of EMSs alone. Thus, Table 8 supports the findings of the full dataset analysis.
To summarize the findings of the descriptive analysis, Table 9 provides an overview of the confirmation status of the nine hypotheses, as well as exceptions detected in relation to the control variables.
Step 1: Single-linkage method and ward method
Cluster analysis considers the 10 ESG category scores. To detect outliers, the single-linkage method is applied. Therefore, nine data points are eliminated, which reduces the sample size from 4,292 to 4,283 companies. The outliers excluded are from all three regions and operate across various industries, and seven outliers have a large market capitalization. No outlier operates any QMSs or EMSs, and each company presents extremely low values for at least one ESG issue. The Ward method is applied to obtain homogenous groups with minimum variance. The resulting dendrogram, shown in Fig. 4, indicates clustering with two groups.
Step 2: Test of data normality and Mann–Whitney U test
Both the Kolmogorov–Smirnov test and the Shapiro–Wilk test disprove data normality for the reduced sample with 4,283 companies and for the two clusters. The Mann–Whitney U test verifies the clustering. Table 10 illustrates that there are indeed statistically significant differences in the central tendencies of all ESG indicators (p < 0.05).
Step 3: Analysis of clusters
The cluster compositions are shown in Figs. 5 and 6. Cluster 1 contains 1,515 companies, i.e., 35.4% of the full sample. The majority of Cluster 1 has at least one management system in place. More specifically, 4.9% run QMSs, 12.5% EMSs, and 42.0% operate both management systems simultaneously. Although 40.7% of the cluster does not have any management systems, the disproportionally low presence of companies without management systems is more obvious when looking at the horizontal distribution. Only 19.3% of the companies without any management systems make it into Cluster 1, whereas the respective figures for companies with QMSs, EMSs, and both management systems amount to 59.7%, 85.5%, and 85.0%, respectively. Therefore, Cluster 1 is clearly dominated by companies operating management systems. Cluster 2, on the other hand, with 2,768 organizations, is clearly overpopulated by companies without any management systems (93.0%).
Regarding company size, Cluster 1 in particular contains organizations with large market capitalizations (55.7%) and only a few small companies (11.6%). This tendency is underlined by figures from the horizontal analysis. Whereas 59.7% of all large companies are in Cluster 1, only 13.3% of the small companies can be found there. This is clearly an anomaly, given that each company size represents approximately one-third of the full sample. The vertical (32.7%) and horizontal (32.1%) share of medium-sized companies is reasonable, in light of the fact that Cluster 1 makes up only around a third of the full sample. Thus, Cluster 1 is dominated by large companies and, in turn, Cluster 2 is characterized by small companies (41.6%) and an underrepresentation of large organizations (20.6%). This is in line with the observations and remarks concerning firm size and ESG ratings presented above.
When it comes to geography, North American (29.2%) and East Asian (27.9%) firms have almost the same weight in Cluster 1, while companies from Europe are noticeably overrepresented (42.9%). Cluster 2 presents the opposite composition, with more than two-thirds of enterprises located in North America (67.4%) and much smaller shares for East Asian (19.9%) and European firms (12.6%). The horizontal analysis reveals that 65.0% of European enterprises make it into Cluster 1, whereas the respective figures for East Asia and North America are only 43.4% and 19.1%, respectively. This is consistent with the observations and remarks about location and ESG ratings mentioned above.
With respect to sectors, most organizations in Cluster 1 operate in industry (17.0%), consumer cyclicals (17.2%), or finance (20.9%). Considering that this cluster represents only about one-third of the full sample, it is noticeable that 60.2% of the companies engaged in basic materials, 49.8% in consumer non-cyclicals, and 44.6% in industry can be found here. Most organizations in Cluster 2 are engaged in healthcare (14.1%), consumer cyclicals (14.2%), or finance (31.1%).
In addition to the numerous contrasts between the compositions of the clusters, there are also major ESG performance differences between Clusters 1 and 2. As shown in Fig. 7, the mean values for the ESG indicators (V1 to V16) are higher for Cluster 1 than for Cluster 2, except for the ESG controversy score (V3). The smallest performance gap between the two clusters is detected in the shareholder score (V15).
Cluster 1 clearly presents higher ESG performance ratings. The overall ESG score (V1) achieves a mean of 63.73 and a median of 63.80; both values are more than 35 points higher than for Cluster 2. The scores are comparably high with respect to the environmental (V4), social (V8), and governance (V13) pillars. At the level of single ESG issues, Cluster 1 reveals particularly strong outperformance in terms of resource use (V5) and emissions (V6) in the environmental dimension; workforce (V9) and human rights (V10) in the social pillar; and CSR strategy (V16) in the governance pillar (see Table 11).
Cluster 2 shows relatively low ESG ratings. In concrete terms, the overall score (V1) is only 28.02 on average, with a median value of 27.02. The respective values for the three ESG dimensions are especially low for the environmental (V4) and social (V8) dimensions, while the highest scores are detected in the governance pillar (V13). With respect to the numerous ESG issues, Cluster 2 presents its highest performance in the management (V14) and shareholder categories (V15). These two indicators are also those with the lowest underperformance as opposed to Cluster 1 (see Table 11).
In summary, the cluster analysis produces two large clusters; most of the companies with QMSs (59.7%), EMSs (85.5%), or both management systems (85.0%) are grouped in Cluster 1, whereas most companies without management systems (80.7%) populate Cluster 2. In addition, Cluster 1 is characterized by a high percentage of large organizations and European companies. The first cluster shows significantly higher values for the 10 ESG category scores, the three ESG pillar scores, and the (combined) ESG score than the second cluster. In conclusion, the patterns detected through the cluster analysis support H1 to H6 and make it possible to answer RQ1 positively. The analysis offers insight into RQ2 by showing that Cluster 1 outperforms Cluster 2 regarding all ESG issues, while revealing the smallest performance gap for the shareholder category (V15). Referring to RQ3, the composition of the clusters supports H7 to H9 with respect to companies with QMSs only.
The statistically significant outperformance of firms with QMSs and/or EMSs as opposed to companies without such management systems for all ESG category scores (except for V15 for Group 2) aligns with previous research that revealed the positive impacts of these management systems on several issues in all three ESG pillars, including waste reduction (E) and improvements in customer (S) and internal (G) communication for QMSs, and improved resources consumption (E), enhanced stakeholder relationships (S), and better manager involvement (G) for EMSs. Therefore, the results support the literature review summarized in Table 1 and contribute to the debate regarding the positive relationship between QMSs/EMSs and CSP. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that although both management systems have comparable benefits for areas such as workforce (V9), product responsibility (V12), and management (V13) (see Table 1), the empirical results reveal varying magnitudes for these benefits as measured by ESG category scores, with Group 2 significantly underperforming compared to Group 3 for V9, outperforming it for V12 and presenting comparable results for V13. This contributes valuable in-depth information to the existing literature reviews about the benefits of implementing QMSs and EMSs that do not mention data-based, magnitude-related differences between both types of management systems. Furthermore, in regard to stakeholder theory, this study evidences the management systems focus on specific stakeholder groups, such as QMSs’ overperformance in V12 being mainly beneficial for customers and EMSs’ V9 overperformance being favorable for employees.
In addition to discussing the results of the full sample, more light should be shed on the deviations detected in relation to the control variables. The descriptive analysis reveals more statistically significant differences between the four sample groups for large companies than for SMEs. Furthermore, Cluster 1 presents strong underrepresentation of small firms, thus demonstrating that large companies are more likely to achieve higher ESG scores. These findings relating to company size are consistent with previous research on ESG ratings and might be due to the fact that SMEs have fewer resources to implement environmental strategies, and because firm size moderates issues such as stakeholder pressure and impacts media coverage, which in turn affects quality and environmental disclosure. Furthermore, the analyses confirmed that European companies tend to achieve higher ESG ratings than firms from East Asia or North America, a finding that is generally aligned with previous cross-regional sustainability research. The geographic heatmap of ESG performances for 2018, as presented by Daugaard and Ding, visualizes the ESG scores around the globe and shows that other providers of ESG data (these authors used Sustainalytics as data source) also confirm the European ESG-related superiority. Such geographical differences in CSP might be due to different sociocultural systems, legal frameworks, and stakeholder pressure for sustainability in the three regions. Furthermore, it should be noted that such formal and informal institutional frameworks also play a pivotal role in facilitating or obstructing the diffusion of standards, including promotional, informational, financial, and legal measures, which in turn impacts ESG scores, as demonstrated by this study. Therefore, it is worth noting that the European and Asian countries included in the sample experience greater QMS and EMS diffusion rates than North American countries.
Comparable normative and coercive pressures might also contribute to the deviations detected regarding sectors. Business sectors have varying levels of competition and stakeholder pressure, as well as varying needs, motivations, and barriers regarding management systems implementation. As indicated in ISO's 2020 survey results, the tendency to adopt QMSs and EMSs does indeed differ among sectors. Moreover, the documented impact of the nature of business operations on ESG scores might be partially explained by the differing degree of ESG transparency among sectors. The cluster analysis, however, with its two distinctive clusters of ESG performance patterns, clearly reveals that Cluster 1 is overpopulated by companies with management systems, which holds true for every control variable (except for the industrial sector). However, even though companies without QMSs or EMSs are found in the cluster with the higher ESG scores, this likelihood appears to be connected to the sector type, location, and firm size. Future research should seek to gather more data on the variances identified in relation to the control variables, as well as on possible interdependencies among these.
In summary, the cluster composition supports the proposed ESG-related advantages of adopting management systems. Furthermore, companies with EMSs or both management systems are more likely to be in Cluster 1 (on average 85.5% and 85%, respectively) than firms operating with QMSs only (59.7%) for most control variable inputs. This is in-line with both the descriptive analysis of the full sample, which shows that Group 3 outperforms Group 2 in several ESG categories (see Tables 4 and 6), as well as the summarized literature review (see Table 1), which only reveals ESG-related benefits of EMSs for some areas, such as emissions and regulatory compliance. Hence, it appears reasonable that combining both management systems is significantly more favorable than operating with QMSs alone (thus confirming H7 to H9 for QMSs). However, this combination leads to slight decline in performance in the governance dimension as opposed to running EMSs only (thus refuting H7 to H9 for EMSs). This might be due to the duplication of tasks and the suboptimal use of resources when multiple separate management systems are in place or the negative effects of carrying out practices with comparable goals (compare, for example, the work of Franco et al.) outweighing the potential benefits of combining the systems. This contributes to the line of discussion related to complementarities in the capabilities required for QMS and EMS adoption and their impact on business performance. Moreover, this result calls for more detailed studies on the ESG-related impacts of having multiple management systems, while distinguishing if companies simply add or actually integrate these systems, as integration can lead to a reduction in administrative burdens and progress in the sustainable development of corporations, among other benefits.
Regrettably, it is not possible to draw any conclusions from the study sample about either the integration level (none, partial, or full) nor the corresponding integration strategies (QMS or EMS implemented first or simultaneous implementation). Therefore, addressing the integration maturity level, which evidently affects CSP, would contribute additional knowledge related to the results of this work.
The literature suggests that ESG themes may be anchored in management systems, thus leading to increased scores in certain pillars, and this paper aims to empirically prove that quality and environmental management systems are indeed suitable business tools to achieve significantly higher performance in the environmental, social, and governance dimensions.
The analysis reveals two major clusters, which demonstrate quite different ESG score patterns for firms with and without the aforementioned management systems. The findings support hypotheses H1 to H6 as well as H7 to H9 for firms with QMSs, while revealing some exceptions related to the control variables. In summary, the work concludes that both QMSs and EMSs enable companies to achieve enhanced ESG performances (RQ1), thus being suitable business tools for addressing sustainability-related stakeholder demands. It is further demonstrated that, despite sharing certain comparable sustainability-related benefits, management systems present varying strengths and weaknesses when it comes to tackling specific ESG categories, while, overall, EMSs achieve a greater impact than QMSs on ESG pillar scores (RQ2). Consequently, combining both management systems leads to statistically significant improved ESG performance compared to operating QMSs alone, whereas the combination leads to slightly, albeit not significantly, improved scores in the environmental and social pillars and minor performance losses in the governance dimension compared to operating EMSs only (RQ3).
Through these conclusions, this work makes three key contributions to the literature and allows to derive several academic, managerial, and policy-related implications aimed at satisfying stakeholders’ needs for greater CSP. First, this paper contributes to the literature on the impact of QMSs and EMSs on companies’ ESG performance by directly linking the concept of ESG ratings to quality and environmental management systems. As such, the focus is on all three pillars simultaneously as opposed to one dimension alone. In this context, sorting the benefits of implementing QMSs and EMSs by a detailed ESG classification, which is broadly used and accepted by practitioners, represents a valuable step.
Second, to the best of the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to quantitatively investigate the relationship between management system implementation and ESG scores. Thus, it contributes to the academic literature by empirically proving the positive impact of QMS and EMS implementation on ESG performance through a large-scale, cross-regional analysis.
Finally, this study sheds some additional light on the advantages of management systems in the context of stakeholder theory, as it shows that their adoption leads to positive developments in CSP-relevant organization/stakeholder relations such as workforce, customers, and community, as well as in the environmental dimension.
The results show corporate executives that management systems adoption represents a way of successfully responding to the increasing CSP demands of stakeholders in areas such as product responsibility, which is best addressed by QMSs, and resource use and emissions, which are best addressed by EMSs. Decision-makers find out about the single ESG-related benefits of QMSs and EMSs with respect to the numerous stakeholder issues, as well as how combining them can impact CSP. This enables them to implement management systems in accordance with their firm’s individual sustainability needs. In view of the global green awakening and its influence on business success, such knowledge will likely become a competitive advantage for enterprises and a benefit for their stakeholders.
The findings of this work support studies that declare management systems to foster CSP (see Table 1), thus emphasizing the importance of their international diffusion. Therefore, regulators should take advantage of the fact that companies view regulators as the stakeholder group with the strongest influence on organizations’ environmental sustainability efforts. The differences detected in ESG scores across regions and company sizes call for greater standardization in sustainability reporting. In addition, to encourage CSP across all industries, policymakers must closely monitor which sectors are shifting towards greater sustainability due to pressure from certain stakeholder groups, and which sectors require additional institutional pressure to increase ESG practices, thus allowing coercive and regulatory forces to be balanced to foster the global diffusion of standards.
The relationship identified allows deepening the research on which management systems can lead to a better ESG performance. Thus, the importance and impact of management systems implementation, as well as their internalization, is still crucial to make companies more efficient and sustainable. Also, the stakeholder theory framework has been identified as important as stakeholders can be the drivers for implementing more sustainable practices, such as management systems.
Limitations and future research
Future research should be directed at overcoming this study’s limitations as well as enlarging and/or specifying the research scope. Firstly, the chosen database and its ESG classification—ESG database providers use their own methodologies, thus conceptualizing the ESG dimensions differently—impact the availability and quality of data. Hence, subsequent research should consider different databases to support the outcomes. Secondly, the study is intentionally directed at QMSs and EMSs in general, thus providing space for both either restricting this focus to specific MSSs (such as ISO 9001 and ISO 14001) or expanding it to other types of management systems (such as OHS) or related practices. Thirdly, the study’s data sample makes no statements regarding the integration level of companies with both management systems or if other management-related practices are in place, which is why future investigations should shed light on the degree of integration, firm-specific circumstances, and their impacts. Fourthly, albeit the country-clustering considers common economic, cultural, and regulatory features, there are nevertheless likely to be certain management systems-related differences among countries from the same regions, which is why more in-detail research is needed for single countries. Fifthly, the chosen methodology implies certain limitations. Despite conducting a time filtering, this study is not longitudinal, only depicting the year 2019, thus demanding to verify the outcomes for other time periods (see, for example, the longitudinal panel data analysis applied by Hernandez-Vivanco et al. for combinations of MSSs and firm financial performance). Moreover, applying other methodologies such as the mentioned panel data analysis and structural equation modelling (SEM) might enable researchers to draw additional or adjusted conclusions and give a broader picture of the relationship between management systems implementation and ESG performance.
The database used has been funded by the Catalan Government program “Ajuts a Grups de Recerca. SGR 2017,” specifically for the project 2017SGR1641. Further, Javier Romaní acknowledges support from Grant PID2020-114896RB-I00 (Agencia Estatal de Investigación, AEI / 10.13039/501100011033; Spanish State Plan for Scientific and Technical Research and Innovation 2017-2020).
Open Access funding provided thanks to the CRUE-CSIC agreement with Springer Nature. Catalan Government program “Ajuts a Grups de Recerca. SGR 2017.”
The data that support the findings of this study are available from Refinitiv Eikon, but restrictions apply to the availability of these data, which were used under licence for the current study, and so are not publicly available. Data are, however, available from the authors upon reasonable request and with permission of Refinitiv Eikon.
Conflict of interest
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This presentation is faithful to the original, with only a few minor changes to presentation, spelling, and grammar. We also added PMCID and DOI when they were missing from the original reference. Several reference URLs were dead; a more current URL or archived version was substituted for dead URLs for this version. Dang et al. 2018 is cited inline but not included in the references section; the presumed article from the Journal of Banking & Finance was added for this version.The original article lists references in alphabetical order; however, this version lists them in order of appearance, by design.