Shades of Green

September 25th, 2009 by Phil Mattera

NewsweekMichael Moore may be on all the talk shows these days touting his new film on the evils of capitalism, but elsewhere in the mainstream media the celebration of big business continues apace. Especially when it comes to the environment, we are meant to believe that large corporations are at the forefront of enlightened thinking.

This is the implicit message of the cover of the new issue of Newsweek, which is filled with leaves to promote its feature on “The Greenest Big Companies in America: An Exclusive Ranking.” The list itself, however, has more validity than the usual exercises of this sort, which tend to take much of corporate greenwash at face value.

The Newsweek rankings are based on what appear to be solid data from KLD Research & Analytics, producer of the reputable (but expensive) SOCRATES social investing database, along with Trucost and CorporateRegister.com. Each company in the S&P 500 is rated on its environmental impact, its environmental policies, and its reputation among corporate social responsibility professionals, academics and other environmental experts. The ratings even take in account a company’s “regulatory infractions, lawsuits and community impacts.”

Not surprisingly, those at the top of the list are high-tech companies—such as Hewlett-Packard (ranked No. 1), Dell (2), Intel (4), IBM (5) and Cisco Systems (12)—which have never had quite the same pollution problems as old-line industries and which in many cases have made themselves “cleaner” by outsourcing their production activities to overseas producers.  Dell, in particular, is on its way to becoming a hollow company by selling off its plants.

More interesting is that supposed sustainability pioneer Wal-Mart comes in at No. 59, behind old-line industrial companies such as United Technologies and Owens Corning. Whole Foods Market, purveyor of over-priced organic groceries, is a bit lower at 67. Oil giant Chevron, which urges the public to “join us” in its supposed commitment to energy efficiency, is ranked 371, not much better than long-time global warming denier ExxonMobil (395).

Since the Newsweek list covers the entirety of the S&P 500, we can also look at what is probably the most significant group: those at the very bottom. The harm that these companies—especially utilities such as American Electric Power and Southern Company with lots of fossil-fuel-fired power plants—do to the environment far outweighs any good done by those at the top of the list. Also among the laggards are agribusiness giants Monsanto (No. 485), Archer Daniels Midland (486), Bunge (493) and ConAgra Foods (497).

But special mention must be given to the absolute worst company of all: mining giant Peabody Energy. On a scale of 0 to 100, Peabody is awarded all of 1 point, presumably reflecting its single-minded dedication to climate-destroying coal and its support for groups fighting the climate bill now in Congress.

Newsweek deserves credit for undertaking a serious evaluation of corporate environmental performance. The web version even has a nice sidebar on green fakery. But the magazine could have easily turned the list upside down and headlined its feature “The Biggest Environmental Culprits of Corporate America.”

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