At the end of June, word that Paper Excellence had been named one of Canada’s “best corporate citizens” starting showing up in my social media feed.

Then on July 4, 2023 a press release from Paper Excellence landed in my Inbox, confirming the news, saying Paper Excellence has “once again” been voted one of Canada’s “ best corporate citizens by Corporate Knights.”

A link in the Paper Excellence press release took me to a Corporate Knights article headlined, “These 50 Canadian corporate citizens are a cut above.”

The article included a table showing the 2023 list of Canada’s “50 best corporate citizens” that Corporate Knights, a “sustainable media and research” company, had compiled.

At the bottom of the rankings table, in 50th place with a score of C minus, is Paper Excellence.

Two men wearing suit jackets with dress shirts but no ties, stand side by side, smiling. The man on the left, slightly grey-haired, with a grey jacket and chequered grey shirt, holds a "Certificate of Excellence, Paper Excellence Canada" while the man on his right in a royal blue jacket has his hands crossed in front of him.
Graham Kissack, Paper Excellence VP Environment, Health & Safety and Corporate Communications (left) holding a certificate of excellence for placing on the Best 50 corporate citizens list, with Corporate Knights co-founder and interim board chair Toby Heaps (right) Credit: Paper Excellence website

Intrigued that Paper Excellence said in its press release that it had “once again” been ranked among Canada’s top 50 corporate citizens, I then had a look at the Corporate Knights list for 2022. Sure enough, Paper Excellence ranked 50th that year too, with a score of 36.8%.

A June 2022 Paper Excellence press release about the Corporate Knights ranking that year claimed it was “the fifteenth time that the company has achieved the Best 50 Award with Corporate Knights.”

That sent me once again on a hunt through Corporate Knights rankings all the way back to when they began in 2002 to see which 15 years Paper Excellence had made the grade, given that the company was only established in 2006.

Fact-checking Paper Excellence claims

I was particularly curious as to whether Paper Excellence, owner of the controversial Northern Pulp mill in Nova Scotia, had been ranked a top corporate citizen in Canada in 2014.

That was the year the Northern Pulp mill’s aging and weathered effluent pipeline broke and spewed 47 million litres of untreated toxic pulp effluent over sacred Mi’kmaq burial grounds. Eventually Northern Pulp pleaded guilty, and was fined $225,000 for what Judge Del Atwood called “an accident waiting to happen.”

Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul in full regalia and headdress, in front of other Mi'kmaq chiefs in full regalia stands in front of a microphone and behind them all is a banner saying No Pulp Waste In Our Water at a 2018 "No Pipe" rally in Pictou. Photo courtesy Gerard J. Halfyard
Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul addresses many hundreds of fishermen and protesters at 2018 “No Pipe” rally in Pictou. Credit: Gerard James Halfyard

I also wanted to see if Paper Excellence had been named among the best 50 corporate citizens in 2019. That was the year the company was pressuring then-Premier Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government of Nova Scotia to rewrite a key piece of legislation it had passed in 2015.

Paper Excellence wanted the provincial government to amend the Boat Harbour Act so Northern Pulp could continue pumping its effluent into Boat Harbour until it had a new effluent treatment facility up and running, which could take years. That would have perpetuated the suffering of Pictou Landing First Nation that had to live with the toxic mess in its back yard, environmental racism at its worst.

But it turned out Paper Excellence was not on the Corporate Knights lists of best corporate citizens in 2014 or 2019.

In fact, Paper Excellence didn’t show up on any of Corporate Knights’ 19 lists before 2021, let alone 15 times as it claimed. 

Apart from 2023 and 2022, the only other time Paper Excellence made the list of top corporations was in 2021, when it placed 43rd with a grade of 46.6%.

Catalyst Paper and Domtar, both of which Paper Excellence has acquired in recent years, did rank among the top 50 corporate citizens several times over the years, but most of those were before Paper Excellence bought those companies, or before Paper Excellence even existed.

The Halifax Examiner has asked Paper Excellence to explain why it claimed in 2022 that it had been on the honours list 15 times, and if this was wrong, if it will issue a correction. We’ve had no reply.[1]

How to make the honour roll

Regular readers of the Examiner may be surprised to learn that Corporate Knights included Paper Excellence on a list of corporations it describes as “a cut above.”

Earlier this year, the Halifax Examiner, CBC, Glacier Media, Le Monde and Radio France worked together on an investigation into Paper Excellence, as part of the months’-long Deforestation Inc. project led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)

Related: Deforestation Inc: How an email from China triggered an international investigative journalism project (March 1, 2023)

Related: Deforestation Inc: Paper Excellence and the ‘environmental insult’ to a First Nation community (March 2, 2023)

Related: Deforestation Inc: Are Paper Excellence and Asia Pulp & Paper linked companies? They say they aren’t. Here’s what we’ve learned (March 9, 2023)

Related: Deforestation Inc: Paper Excellence’s rapid expansion in Canada is a ‘fibre grab’ to feed mills in China, say critics (March 10, 2023)

The Deforestation Inc. investigation dug into Paper Excellence’s ties with Asia Pulp & Paper, with its poor financial, social and environmental record. Asia Pulp & Paper is part of the multi-billion-dollar Sinar Mas Group, owned by the Indonesian multi-billionaire Wijaya (sometimes Widjaja) family.

The investigation looked at Paper Excellence’s early years and expansion in Canada, the financing of which was facilitated by a Chinese state bank. It also delved into the complexity and opacity of the company’s corporate structure, with holding companies in many popular tax havens around the world.

A circular graphic diagram with coloured circles and lines and arrows showing the many and complex links between Paper Excellence corporate structure and Asia Pulp & Paper, with different colours indicating various tax havens where the companies named in the diagram are registered.
Figure 21 from the 2022 report, “Papering over corporate control,” published by the Environmental Paper Network, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and Woods & Wayside International, shows the incredibly complex corporate structure of Paper Excellence and its links to Asia Pulp & Paper. Credit: Environmental Paper Network, Greenpeace, Woods & Wayside, and the Rainforest Action Network

Parliamentarians investigating Paper Excellence

The Deforestation Inc. revelations led Canadian parliamentarians in the federal Standing Committee on Natural Resources to call for an investigation into Paper Excellence and its ownership.

The committee invited Jackson Wijaya, who Paper Excellence says is the sole owner and shareholder of the corporation, to appear to answer questions. Wijaya wrote to the committee saying he was too busy with “extensive global business commitments” and he sent executives in his stead. The committee investigation was curtailed when the parliamentary session ended in June.

Related: Deforestation Inc: Media investigation into Paper Excellence ignites concerns on Parliament Hill over the company’s mysterious ownership, Chinese ties, and rapid expansion in Canada (March 22, 2023)

Related: Parliamentary committee may summon Paper Excellence owner Jackson Wijaya

Related: Natural Resources committee refuses to summon Paper Excellence’s Wijaya

Scraping ‘the bottom of the barrel’

Shane Moffatt of Greenpeace Canada appeared as a witness before the federal natural resources committee, where he described Paper Excellence’s complex and confusing corporate structure and offshore holdings. He quoted from filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that he said suggest Jackson Wijaya is a “code word for the financial interests of a family that owns a global logging empire.”

The Examiner asked Moffatt for his reaction to the news that Paper Excellence had been named one of Canada’s best corporate citizens. His reply:

Corporate Knights really had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for this one. If a transnational corporation which is the subject of Hearings in the House of Commons for its connections to a global deforestation empire and major media investigations into its secretive ownership structure can make the top 50, it shows just how bad things are out there in the corporate sector right now.

Corporate Knights lauds “Deforestation Inc.”

Ironically, a week after announcing its 2023 rankings for Canada’s top corporate citizens with Paper Excellence among them, Corporate Knights published an article lauding the ICIJ-led Deforestation Inc. project for uncovering major problems with environmental auditing and forest certification schemes, including the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), “from Canada to Taiwan, the U.S. to Turkey.”

In the Corporate Knights article headlined “Hero: How journalists exposed cracks in global forestry certifications,” Bernard Simon writes this about the ICIJ findings:

The report concludes that the global forest-products industry remains largely unregulated despite what “companies tell consumers and investors about the sourcing of their projects and their commitment to helping end the global climate crisis.” Without the ICIJ’s work, chances are that message would never have been heard.

The Examiner asked Corporate Knights about the apparent inconsistency – its ranking of Paper Excellence as one of Canada’s top corporate citizens, while praising the investigative journalism that delved into the company’s problematic corporate structure and affiliations, and uncovered corporate abuse of forest certification schemes like FSC.

In an emailed reply, Corporate Knights research manager Matthew Malinsky writes that FSC was included in the “sustainable revenue” criteria used to rank the corporations, accounting for 25% of the final grade they are given. Says Malinsky:

Paper Excellence has a percentage of their inputs FSC chain of custody certified, which receives 50% sustainable revenue credit under CK SET [Corporate Knights Sustainable Economy Taxonomy.] 

How Corporate Knights does the ranking

Corporate Knights provides the full results of its ranking analysis, showing how the 50 corporations performed on “25 key performance indicators.” Those include everything from pension quality to diversity of board membership.

However, as Toby Heaps, a co-founder of and interim board chair of Corporate Knights, notes in an email, “The majority of the weight in our system is on just a few indicators. For instance, just two of the 25 indicators, sustainable revenue and sustainable investment, comprise 50% of the weight.”

In an interview, Corporate Knights research director Ralph Torrie explains, “Sustainable revenue is how companies make their money, and sustainable investment is how they spend it.”

According to Corporate Knights, its “ranking is based mostly publicly-disclosed data (e.g., financial filings, sustainability reports, company websites)” and companies “are contacted for data verification prior to project completion.”  

A screenshot of the Corporate Knights website showing the different covers of the 2016 to 2023 Best 50 corporate citizens lists it compiles each year, each a distinct design with the words "The Best 50" over the graphic imagery.
Corporate Knights website for Best 50 corporate citizens reports Credit: Corporate Knights

‘People want to get on these lists’

Asked about the purpose of the Corporate Knights annual corporate rankings, Torrie answers, “The rankings along with a lot of – if not everything – we do is designed to try and move investment into sustainable production pathways. And to have an impact in accelerating the sustainability transition.” 

“People want to get on these lists,” says Torrie. “Corporate Knights has a reputation for doing this fairly well … So companies like to get on the corporate names list.”

The Examiner asked Corporate Knights several other specific questions about Paper Excellence. Among them: how it could rank Paper Excellence among Canada’s best corporate citizens when the corporation is suing the province of Nova Scotia for $450 million (or more), and its subsidiary Northern Pulp is failing to repay more than $86 million while it is enjoying creditor protection in the British Columbia Supreme Court although Northern Pulp’s largest creditor is none other than its owner Paper Excellence, and Northern Pulp is failing to pay close to $7 million it owes in special defined benefit pension contributions in Nova Scotia, something the province’s superintendent of pensions says is contrary to Nova Scotia law.

In an emailed reply, Torrie writes that Corporate Knights does “deduct points when fines, sanctions and settlements are determined by the courts or relevant tribunals.”

Asked whether Corporate Knights was aware of the Deforestation Inc. investigation into Paper Excellence, which led to a subsequent investigation of the company by the federal Standing Committee on Natural Resources, Torrie says:

The Corporate Knights methodology details how we score companies.  We do keep a watching brief on companies that are in the news for allegations of illegal or unacceptable (in the CK methodology) practices, but we do not rely on media reports for assessing deductions for fines and sanctions.

We also asked if Corporate Knights ever reviews its rankings, or removes corporations from the lists it has compiled. Torrie’s reply:  

The Best 50 ranking is repeated annually, and is generally based on whatever numbers we have for the companies in March.  Some metrics are reviewed on a more frequent basis and our database is updated accordingly.  For example, we update our fines and sanctions data every month and will be watching for the outcomes of the lawsuits and proceedings you have mentioned.  We do not retroactively alter published rankings except occasionally to correct errors that are uncovered in the application of our method.  

Paper Excellence qualified for the last position in this year’s Best 50 on the basis of its scores against the CK [Corporate Knights] methodology.  The percent of its revenue from Canadian mills with FSC certification was a key determinant of its score.  (Note that this year there will be adjustments to the method with the split between the weights given to sustainable revenue and sustainable investment going from 42.5% and 7.5%, respectively to 25% and 25%).

‘Corporate propaganda’

Joel Bakan doesn’t buy any of it, and is not a fan of such ranking processes. 

Bakan is a law professor at the University of British Columbia, and the author of the landmark 2002 book, “The corporation: the pathological pursuit of profit and power,” and its 2020 sequel, “The new corporation: how ‘good’ corporations are bad for democracy.” Both became documentary films.

The premise of Bakan’s 2020 book is that in recent years, corporations have started presenting themselves as “doing well by doing good,” and being “responsible towards and caring about social and environmental values.” But in an interview Bakan cautions:

They’ve changed their behaviour in fairly minor ways, never in ways that encroach upon their bottom lines, only in ways that boost their bottoms lines and avoid risks to their bottom lines. That’s a fairly limited model for achieving what they purport to be doing, which is creating a better world and a just society and sustainability and solving climate change and all of that…

He calls this the “new corporation movement,” with its “corporate propaganda” about companies’ “good deeds and their good works.”

That, Bakan tells the Examiner, is “getting magnified by rankings like Corporate Knights’ and others’.”

Bakan says the way “sustainability” is understood by corporations and within most ranking systems as “all about protecting companies from risk – risks that are created by their harmful activities to the environment and to people.”

“That’s consistent with the primary goals of these companies, which is to avoid as much risk as they can to make as much money as they can,” Bakan says. “Their mandate it not to serve social and environmental values.”

Silver-haired man with deep green rimmed glasses looks directly into the camera, with his mouth closed and looking very serious, his arms crossed across his chest. He is wearing a dark blue-grey suit jacket and a white shirt. He is standing in front of a white brick wall but the rest of the background is blurred.
Joel Bakan Credit: Joel Bakan

What corporations are doing should count

Bakan points out that Corporate Knights ranks companies not on what they do, but on how they do it, which in his view is problematic.

He notes that Corporate Knights ranks British Columbia-based Teck Resources 32nd on this year’s list of best 50 corporate citizens, and 78th on its 2023 list of the world’s “100 most sustainable companies.”

“Teck is heavily involved in coal,” says Bakan. “Coal is by many accounts – scientific, activist, NGO – unsustainable by definition.” He continues:

So the question then becomes, how does Teck end up on that list, given its business model is heavily dependent on coal? And the answer is that the lists and the criteria don’t really look at the business model. They don’t ask, “What are you involved in? Are you involved in cutting down trees? Are you involved in taking coal out of the ground?” Rather, they ask, “How do you do what you’re doing? Do you do a better job than other companies at cutting down those trees? Do you maybe plant a few more trees in their place? Or if you’re doing coal, do you have some better safeguards?” And so it’s all about means, and it’s all about not questioning the fundamental business model of a company.

This means the ranking system has what Bakan calls “a very, very narrow scope and potentially a very deceiving one.”

Posters advertising Teck (Resources), a mining company, saying "Better Mining, Better World" and showing images of deep mines and industrial equipment mounted beside an escalator in the Toronto Convention Centre at the 2020 Prospectors and Developers Convention, sponsored by Teck Resources.
At the 2020 Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention in Toronto, the world’s largest mining extravaganza, Teck Resources, as the major sponsor, plastered the entire convention centre with its glowing advertisements. (Three years later, the B.C. government would fine Teck more than $16 million for polluting waterways.) Credit: Joan Baxter

Corporate Knights has ranked two companies – American Water and Pearson very high on their lists of the world’s “most sustainable companies,” says Bakan. “And both of these are companies I criticized in my recent film and book for being heavily involved in privatization of water and of education, respectively.”

He continues:

If your ranking system is blind to controversies around the business model that’s being deployed, whether it’s coal or palm oil or deforestation or privatization of schools or water systems, and if it simply looks at measures of how things are being done rather than what’s being done, you really have to question the value.

Corporations claim to “make the world a better place”

Bakan sees major problems in how Corporate Knights does the ranking, including what he calls the “arbitrariness” of who gets to decide the criteria and how each should be weighted and interpreted. He also notes the conspicuous absence of other criteria:

A great example of that is unions. When they look at workplace, they look at things like numbers of injuries, but they don’t appear to look at the question of unions and whether or not the company is involved in union busting. Samsung is number 63 on the best of a 100 list, despite its horrendous history of union busting. Canadian Tire makes both the Canadian [top 50] list and top 100 list, despite being in midst right now of controversies around low wages and around union-busting.

Bakan is also concerned about how Corporate Knights gets the information for their analyses. He explains:

They basically rely on the companies themselves, on annual reports, on websites. They do a bit of fact-checking, but they don’t say how much they do, so we have no idea. So they’re basically relying upon and magnifying the public-facing information that the companies put out. Which, as we know, is often self-serving, misleading, not independent, a PR exercise …

If you go to the website of almost any company these days, it appears as though you’ve landed on the website of an environmental or social NGO. Their leading claim is not “we make a lot of money.” Their opening page is usually composed of lovely pictures of children or forests, very happy pictures of a better world. And they’re claiming that they are helping make the world a better place.

Stunning forested mountain landscape with blue lakes and no sign of any forest clearcutting under a blue sky with fluffy white clouds, over which are the words "A Global Leader in Sustainable Pulp & Paper" from the website of Paper Excellence.
Paper Excellence website paints a pretty picture of a healthy forested landscape. Credit: Paper Excellence website

‘Bad for democracy’

Bakan says ranking systems are enabling rather than challenging corporate propaganda:

… the rankings are done without the benefit of the usual mechanisms for holding entities accountable, things like inspection, like genuine independent investigative journalism, like rigorous academic inquiry and study. In the absence of those kinds of tools to actually find out what the truth is and to come up with criteria that are effective and rigorous and rigorously interpreted… which is true of most of these ranking systems … what you end up with is a system that is enabling the propaganda that companies are pumping out.

Because as Corporate Knights itself says, it is relying on annual reports, social responsibility reports, the ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] reports and the websites of these companies. It doesn’t say it has a staff of 150 crack journalists who are now investigating, or a panel of social and natural scientists who are investigating, or an inspection staff. It doesn’t have any of that.

Bakan tells the Examiner that the rankings “then have this impact in making these companies seem good, which has an effect on consumers, on investors, and on government who say, ‘Oh well, I guess we don’t need to regulate as much because these companies are being so good on their own.’”

And all of this, Bakan believes, weakens democracy. He explains:

Think of the name, Corporate Knights. You know, it’s the knight in shining armour saving the world. The knight is a sort of metaphor in our culture of saviour. And so it’s this idea that corporations are our saviours, at a time where government and the idea of democratic regulation is being very heavily criticized from the corporate sector and from other sectors as well.

In his 2020 book, he writes that so-called “good” corporations “are bad for democracy.”

Bakan concludes that the ranking systems are not helpful because they make corporations look like “good” citizens, even when they are causing all kinds of environmental and social harm, and contributing to the climate crisis:

So the larger ideological momentum behind things like Corporate Knights and this entire “new corporation movement” is positioning large transnational corporations in ways that justify their being freer of government oversight, and more powerful in governing society, as governments themselves recede in significance.

When governments recede in significance, the inevitable effect — at least in democratic nations — is democracy receding in significance.


Endnotes

[1] The questions sent to Paper Excellence on July 11 are:

1. I recently received your press release saying that Paper Excellence had “once again been voted one of Canada’s top 50 corporate citizens” by Corporate Knights. Can you please let me know how many times in total Paper Excellence has been ranked among the top 50 corporate citizens by Corporate Knights?

2. In 2022, this Paper Excellence press release states, “Paper Excellence today announced it has once again been voted one of Canada’s 2022 Best 50 corporate citizens by Corporate Knights. This is the fifteenth time that the company has achieved the Best 50 Award with Corporate Knights.”  Can you please tell me which 15 years these were? A search of the Corporate Knights database of its top 50 corporate citizens from 2022 until 2023 indicates that Paper Excellence was on this list three times – 2021, 2022, and 2023. Is this correct?. If so, can you help me understand that discrepancy?

3. If it turns out that this 2022 statement (in the Paper Excellence press release above) about Paper Excellence having achieved the Best 50 Award with Corporate Knights 15 times is not accurate, will Paper Excellence issue a correction?

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca; Twitter @joan_baxter

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4 Comments

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  1. Responding from Corporate Knights, we are very appreciative of the service provided by journalists like Joan Baxter who expose and delve into the background of unsustainable corporate behaviour. In this particular case, we will be monitoring the lawsuits and following up on other information in her article in our evaluation of Paper Excellence. There were a few points in the article, particularly with regard to the quotes from Mr. Bakan, where we would like to offer some clarification or counter views:
    — The question “what are you involved in” is at the heart of our sustainability rankings which go beyond the conventional ESG metrics Mr. Bakan refers to in the article and instead evaluate companies based on whether their production is contributing to the sustainability transition. We have developed a taxonomy of sustainable production and we measure each company’s revenues and investments against that taxonomy to determine their alignment with the sustainability transition.
    — Some industries have their major impact through their products (e.g., the auto industry) and others through their production processes (e.g., cement) and so it is important to look at both what they produce and how they produce it. We disqualify some industrial activity, including fossil fuel production (but not metallurgical coal) and the use of forest biomass for power production. For others, including forestry, we assess performance against their industry peer group and we will rely on third party certifications if they are not industry sponsored, if they must be re-earned regularly, if they have clear and transparent methodology, and if they align with the principles that inform on sustainable economy taxonomy.
    — We absolutely do consider the extent to which companies are pivoting to sustainability. This is precisely why we give a high weight to how a company’s capital investments are aligned with sustainability. Such investments signal a move away from traditional practices.
    — Corporate Knights is at its roots an investigative journalism outlet, which has evolved over time to also being a provider of sustainability data and assessments. Our rankings place major emphasis on measurable quantitative data as opposed to qualitative data, which can often be quite subjective.
    While we may not have a large team at our disposal, we have a research department that is composed of highly educated, dedicated individuals from multi-disciplinary backgrounds, and we maintain a roster of investigative journalists who probe into topics related to corporate sustainability.
    — Our methodology, available freely on our web site, is clear about the exclusions of companies which are directly involved in corporate misbehaviour such as involvement in thermal coal, palm oil or deforestation.
    — We seek to arrive at an objective assessment of how sustainable a given company’s activities are and as such we do not factor in any political inclinations on matters including but not limited to privatization of water supply and education.
    — If Mr. Bakan is calling for greater disclosure and government verification, we could not be in greater agreement. We are well aware of the limitations of corporate information and publications and desk research, and we spend a great deal of our time verifying and vetting such information.

  2. Thank you for continuing the great coverage of this complete and utter disaster. It just keeps going from terrible to worse. And now these wankers are getting rewarded? Are they kidding?

  3. Terrific coverage! Couldn’t help in reading this to connect “text-to-text”. In re-reading some material lately I came upon insights revealed somewhat as Joan has done with her research. Here are a couple: 1. a criterion based on adjectives is ALWAYS AMBIGUOUS. 2. Here’s something to be on the look-out for as you read reports, especially those having to do with “sustainable revenue and sustainable investment” : Is there select coverage of things?- i.e. does the reporting amount to “I count only the hours that are serene.” ?
    Forgive the nostalgia, but, as I read this piece I thought of the commentary that came in some of the songs by a great group from Cape Breton- Buddy and the Boys. Two of their songs came to mind- “Workin’ at the Woolco” and “Besco”.