Causing an ESG stir: the world's 10 most controversial companies

23 January 2019 8 min. read
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A new report listing the globe’s 10 most controversial companies of 2018 has arrived. The companies on the list were most exposed to environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) and business conduct risks.

The “Most Controversial Companies” (MCC) report was created by RepRisk, a Switzerland-based data science company which specializes in risk research, including ESG. The researchers took an “outside-in” approach when assessing companies. Using data from media, stakeholders and other public sources, RepRisk analyzed whether companies are practicing what they are preaching; that is, “whether a company’s policies and processes are translating into actual performance on the ground.”

Here's an overview of the controversial companies and organizations that made the cut: 

Lion Mentari Airlines (Lion Air)

The October 29 crash of Lion Air's intra-national Flight JT 610 from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang killed 189 people. It was caused by inaccurate readings from an aircraft sensor, which pitched the nose of the airplane, a Boeing 737 Max 8, downward – essentially an “auto-dive.”

Boeing denied responsibility, pointing the finger at Lion Air’s “poor maintenance of the aircraft.” The recent crash is only a drop in the bucket of the airline’s safety woes. In 2015, it received a one-star rating on’s annual safety ranking list (Qantas tops the list this year). Lion Air was prohibited from operating within US and EU airspace for nearly a decade due to safety concerns.

Causing an ESG stir: the world's 10 most controversial companies 

Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power (PNPC)

The partial collapse of Laos’s Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Hydropower Project during its construction on the Mekong River puts PNPC in the number-two spot. The July 23 collapse of an auxiliary damn released 5 billion cubic meters of water that flooded communities in Attepu province. The government’s official death toll is 43, but estimates from environmentalists say that the flooding killed more than 800 people. It left approximately 7,000 homeless, and caused the evacuation of 25,000 people living in Cambodia, which borders Laos.

Companies involved in the construction of the dam did not take preventative measures after noticing a “four-inch depression” in the center of the dam. The depression widened during the next 48 hours, becoming three feet deep. Only then was a written alert sent to provincial officials. The dam collapsed that night. “Substandard construction and inadequate risk assessment” are the root causes of the collapse, according to the Laotian government. Some engineers say the dam was being built on a sinkhole. Rumors of corruption, bribery, extortion, and money laundering also swirl around the project.

Punjab National Bank (PNB)

Jewelry designer Nirav Modi, his uncle, Mehul Choksi, and two PNB employees were accused of defrauding the bank of millions of dollars in a sophisticated scam involving fraudulent letters of undertaking that allowed “a small group of customers to obtain credit from overseas branches of Indian banks.” Because the letters were issued by the bank, PNB is liable. The fraud reportedly accounted for 33% of the bank’s value, and shares subsequently fell by 10%. Upon investigation, PNB admitted that the fraudulent transactions could amount to up to $2 billion. Modi has since fled the country. His whereabouts are currently unknown. 

Changsheng Bio-technology (CBT)

Chinese biotech company CBT was accused of producing substandard vaccinations, notably rabies vaccines produced by Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences (CCLS), a subsidiary of CBT. The news broke less than a year after CCLS was accused of – and subsequently fined nearly $500,000 for – the substandard production and sale of the DPT vaccine, which prevents diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus. Approximately 250,000 of these vaccines were sold to a Chinese-based disease control and prevention center. 

In July, there were claims that the vaccines had been used on millions of babies. It was also revealed that CBT subsidiary representatives had offered bribes and kickbacks to hospital and medical officials. CBT was eventually fined $1.32 billion. The Shenzhen Stock Exchange announced that the company would be delisted in beginning in 2019, making CBT the first company in China to be delisted in line with revised rules that enable stock exchanges to expel companies for violations that endanger national security, public health, and work and public safety.

JBS Tolleson

A salmonella scare caused JBS USA, a subsidiary of Brazilian company JBS, to recall 6.5 million pounds of minced beef from its Arizona plant. In an approximate month-long period between August and September, 57 people in 16 states became ill after consuming the meat. It had been sold in several supermarket chains – such as Winn Dixie, Sprouts, and Kroger – throughout the United States. The outbreak expanded to 25 states and 250 people by mid-November. The recall was then expanded, bringing back more than 12 million pounds of beef.

“On December 12, 2018, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that at least 333 people had contracted salmonella from JBS Tolleson’s beef products, and that 91 people had been hospitalized since August 5, 2018.” 

Dankse Bank AS Estonia

This Estonian subsidiary of Denmark’s Dankse Bank came under fire after multiple allegations of its involvement in money laundering operations fronted by Russian and Azerbaijani officials. One claim alleged that up to $3.3 billion had been laundered through the bank between 2012-2013 by British companies linked to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Three deaths have also been linked to the laundering scheme. In the aftermath, Dankse Bank’s head of compliance and CEO resigned. 

Cambridge Analytica

A report in British newspaper The Observer blew open the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The British data analytics company had taken data from 50 million Facebook profiles without authorization, a former employee told the publication. Facebook subsequently suspended the company’s access to the platform. Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, filed for bankruptcy last year, and pleaded guilty last week to breaking British data laws. SCL also agreed to hand over all server passwords to the Information Commissioner’s Office, according to a January article by The Daily Beast.

Austostrade per l’Italia (Autostrade)

The collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy placed Autostrade center stage in the harsh scrutiny following the accident. The company is involved in the management and construction of toll highways in Italy. The bridge collapse killed 43 people and injured 16. It had been undergoing maintenance managed by Autostrade at the time of its collapse. Charges such as culpable disaster and aggravated manslaughter against 20 people involved in the project, including government officials, were filed by the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Autostrade and nine of its employees are currently under investigation for culpable homicide. The cause of the collapse is suspected to revolve around the bridge’s tie rods, which were due for replacement and had corroded coverings.


In July, supermarket chains around Europe, such as Aldi, Lidl, Tesco, and Waitrose recalled frozen vegetables potentially contaminated with the bacterium that can cause listeria. The vegetables had been produced by Belgian company Greenyard at a Hungarian factory. The outbreak caused 47 illness and nine deaths, half of which occurred in Finland. People in Denmark, Sweden, Austria, and the UK were also affected.

Keppel Offshore and Marine

A rig-building subsidiary of Singapore’s Keppel Corporation, Keppell Offshore and Marine is involved in an ongoing bribery scandal, which has been occurring in Brazil for over a decade. Keppel Offshore and Marine has allegedly bribed Petroleos Brasileiros and Sete Brazil to secure contracts in the South American country. The company has already agreed to pay hundreds of millions in fines. As a result of the allegations, Sete Brazil filed for bankruptcy.