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As a tool for quick comparison, Newsweek's Green Ranking is a commendable effort. But who is actually at the top of the list and what did they do to get there?
The industry that dominates the top of Newsweek's list is "technology," which includes computer manufacturers and software companies. Looking at the environmental efforts of these companies, it is not surprising that they scored so highly.
Intel, which placed third in the technology sector and fourth overall, became the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the country in 2008 and has made an effort to eliminate toxic elements like lead from its products. Even with these efforts, however, Intel lost points in the ranking for toxic emissions and for greenhouse gas emissions as compared to the company's revenue, placing 268th overall in terms of environmental impact.
Another computer-chip manufacturer at the top of the list was Applied Materials, which has been praised for its investment in solar energy. Still, the company lost points for water consumption and, as Newsweek reports, a failure to find significant solutions to offset this use.
There are, of course, some surprises on this list. Companies that have received lots of attention for green efforts, like Google and Apple, seemed to miss the mark, failing to make the top 20 in their industry or, in the case of Apple, even the top 100 overall.
Other companies that have had trouble pleasing human rights and environmental groups in the past, scored well. Nike, which has been criticized for its use of sweatshops and toxic materials, is one example. The company, Newsweek's ranking highlights, has made an incredible effort since those days of eco-sinning, introducing sustainable materials, a reuse-a-shoe program, and requiring all of its factories to draft a written environmental policy.
There are other surprises as well. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson placed third overall. The ranking seems to focus on the company's efforts to compensate for its impact, scoring it second overall in terms of "green policies and performance." While these efforts are commendable, it's hard to look at the company, which earned 217th place overall in terms of environmental impact mostly due to the toxic pollutants it emits, and feel good about calling it one of the "top three big green companies in the country."
Green Policy Overshadows Impact
When we look at the example of Johnson & Johnson, some obvious problems with the ranking begin to emerge. Giving so much weight to "green policies and performance" overshadows the true impact, as measured in toxic pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions, and water usage, these companies have on the environment.
The top 20 companies with the highest scores for environmental impact occupy one of three industries: banks and insurance, financial services, or health care. Of these twenty, however, only four make it into the top 200 overall: Travelers at 32nd, Mellon at 60th, Capital One Financial at 71st, and Progressive at 142nd.
Certainly, companies making an effort to develop and enforce green policies at a company-wide level are building a foundation for the future. By comparing their intentions, however, to their true impact an unsettling discrepancy between environmental-friendliness and "greenness" emerges.
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