Monday, September 21, 2009

Corporate green rankings: looking beyond the list mentality

As Newsweek magazine notes in its latest issue, being green isn't new. However, in-depth analysis of green issues in the mainstream media is. This week, Newsweek ran its first-every "green rankings" issue, rating 500 major U.S. corporations based on their environmental performance, policies and reputation.

The results make for an interesting read. Hewlett-Packard comes out on top based in its "strong programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," according to Newsweek. Dell is second, followed by Johnson & Johnson, Intel and IBM. State Street, at number six, is the only financial services company to crack the top ten, followed by Nike, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Applied Materials and Starbucks.

To its credit, Newsweek devoted an impressive amount of editorial effort and external resources to this project. For more than a year, Newsweek says it worked with leading environmental researchers, such as KLD and Trucost, firms whose valuable research rarely appears in mainstream publications.

But what's perhaps more interesting is Newsweek's admission that any "green ranking" system is bound to have its flaws, explained in one of several articles related to the list.

"Ranking compaines based on sustainability is a huge challenge," Newsweek says, noting the inevitable apples and oranges element to comparing environmental performance across industries. "Some are far dirtier than others: a typical financial services company exacts a smaller environmental toll than even the best-run mining or utility company."

Newsweek attempts to compensate for that by including three components in its final green score: environmental impact, green policies and reputation.

The article goes even further: "Economists view environmental damage as a classic "externality" - a cost that impacts society but isn't imposed on producers or consumers. But with scientific consensus that carbon emissions threaten our climate, there's growing political will to curb them, particularly with the global powers set to meet in Copenhagen in December."

Rankings like this will soon be forgotten in the quick turnaround of today's 24-hour news cycle. But, by placing considerable emphasis on this story, Newsweek is telling its readers that climate change is critical and should be taken more seriously by the world's corporations and politicians, a fact that environmental and SRI groups have been trumpeting for years. So, if nothing else, Newsweek's green rankings suggest that the mainstream media is starting to listen.

Read Newsweek's 2009 Green Rankings.

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