26/01/2016 05:12 GMT | Updated 25/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Who Is Top of the League When It Comes to Farm Animal Welfare?

Confession time - I love a good ranking. But I'm not alone, they're everywhere; the Premier League, the Box Office, Time Person of the Year. But it's not all movies, sports teams and politics. There is a ranking for how global food brands treat farm animals too. The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare.

The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (or BBFAW) is designed to encourage global food companies to improve their management of farm animal welfare. It scrutinises the activities of 90 businesses, including McDonald's, Mars and Starbucks, and it has already helped to improve the lives of farm animals all over the world.

Now in its fourth year, BBFAW - in collaboration with us at World Animal Protection, Compassion in World Farming and investment firm, Coller Capital - has made much progress, with companies developing policies and understanding the importance of good animal welfare within their supply chains. Just putting animal welfare on the agenda for some big businesses has made all of the difference. I mean, how can you ask someone to change what they're doing if they don't know what they're doing in the first place?

Take World Animal Protection's collaborations with forward-thinking food companies - including several of those ranked by BBFAW - to help improve the welfare of animals. BRF, one of the world's biggest food companies, is a prime example, which in 2014 formed a ground-breaking partnership with us. Just over a year later they have jumped up one tier in the BBFAW rankings.

And every year the questions BBFAW ask are getting tougher; this year the companies were judged on the action they are taking as well as words in their annual reports.

The latest results are a mixed bag. Forty percent of companies, including Burger King, Domino's and Starbucks, still provide little or no information on their treatment of animals, which worries me - they could be putting animals at serious risk.

There is a lot of good stuff too; companies at the top table include Marks & Spencer and Waitrose from the UK, while the next tier down includes global powerhouses like Unilever and McDonald's. And they didn't all start in these positions - they've actively improved their approach to farm animal welfare since the first BBFAW report was published. To give just one example, the proportion of companies with a published farm animal welfare policy has increased from 46% in 2012 to 69% in 2015. Given that corporate policies are the key starting point for action, this is a huge change in a relatively short time.

The success of BBFAW is no surprise; rankings are encouraging businesses to embrace a wide range of sustainability issues that matter most to their customers and shareholders. Just recently, Greenpeace launched a ranking on tuna fish retailers, and Oxfam's Behind the Brands campaign ranked the ten largest global food companies by their performance on a range of issues, from climate change to women's rights.

As a tactic to create change, rankings can play a vital role. They show where a company stands amongst its peers and promote a spirit of continuous improvement.

A ranking also exploits one of the hallmarks of the free market economy - competition. For too long, farm animals have been the victims of a race to the bottom - a relentless drive for ever greater profits, whatever the cost to the animals in that process. BBFAW is tackling exactly that.

This new era of transparency and accountability around farm animal welfare and the use of publicly available data places an onus on companies to respond to the opportunity.

This information is also of significant value to the investment community, which is integrating animal welfare into its priorities. The BBFAW team is already working with investors that represent over a trillion dollars in assets, ensuring that farm animal welfare is slowly but surely becoming a boardroom concern.