by: Joel Makower

Who's the greenest of them all? It's a question I'm asked almost weekly, by reporters, students, market researchers, job seekers, entrepreneurs, and assorted others.

All ask some version of "Who are the greenest companies?" or "What are the greenest products?" or "What are the greenest trends?" In almost all cases, I politely pass on answering. The fact is, no one really knows.

For all that we seem to love ratings and rankings -- from Nielsen TV ratings to Amazon rankings to Google Zeitgeist -- the green world hasn't seen its share. Sure, there's the League of Conservation Voters' list of the Dirty Dozen lawmakers, SustainLane's annual list of "most sustainable cities", the U.S. EPA's list of the top 25 buyers of green power, and the occasional top-whatever list of green building products or schools or something else. But it's slim pickings. For all the noise about "saving the earth," there's been no apparent rush to judgment.

One reason may be the complexity of it all. Rating or ranking companies or products on their environmental attributes, and doing it right, is no small matter. It requires collecting, analyzing, synthesizing, and weighing a mind-numbing amount of technical information about company policies, performance, and progress, or a product's cradle-to-grave life-cycle impacts. Getting this information isn't easy: Most companies hold such information close to the vest, releasing only that which they want the public to see. There's also the cost -- the enormous investments of both time and money needed to suss all this out. Such complexity is one big reason why independent green labeling programs like Green Seal have never gotten traction -- at least in the U.S.

But green ratings may be on the rise. This past week, amid the usual doldrums of late August, ratings blossomed: two groups published green ratings for computers and cars, while a third rated colleges' green MBA programs.

Greenpeace released a Guide to Greener Electronics, which rates leading manufacturers "on their global policies and practice on eliminating harmful chemicals and on taking responsibility for their products once they are discarded by consumers." The scorecard examines companies' toxic chemical policies and practices, as well as their efforts to take back discarded electronic products and recycle them.

The bottom line: All 14 companies reviewed "fail to get a green ranking," says Greenpeace. Nokia and Dell rated best, primarily for their willingness to take back and reuse or recycle their own-brand discarded products.

The absence of winner notwithstanding, there's some good stuff here. The 35-page document (download - PDF) presents an easy-to-use, red-green grid to identify where companies are good and bad (as well as "partially good" and "partially bad"). The opening gauge-like graphic (pictured above) reveals in one picture how all 14 companies stand.

Next comes JD Power & Associates, the global marketing information firm best known for its rankings of automobile quality and reliability. It released its inaugural Automotive Environmental Index, a top-30 ranking of environmentally friendly vehicles. The Index, as the company explains:

combines U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publicly available information with voice-of-the-customer data related to fuel economy, air pollution, and greenhouse gases for 2006 model-year vehicles. Voice-of-the-customer data is also used to help determine the relative importance of these environmental factors. The fuel economy factor represents approximately 50 percent of the index, while air pollution and greenhouse gases contribute to the remainder.

Others have rated green vehicles, too, most notably the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy's annual Green Book -- but the JD Power imprimatur will help to bring green machines ever faster into the mainstream. In its research, hybrids from Ford (Escape), Honda (Accord, Civic, Insight), Lexus (RX 400), and Toyota (Highlander, Prius) ranked highest.

No surprises there, but was more interesting was the "voice-of-the-customer" survey. It found that fewer than one in four consumers say they will consider only a gas-powered model for their next new vehicle. Among those who expect to acquire a new vehicle within the next two years, a majority -- 57 percent -- say they are considering a hybrid vehicle. Clearly, hybrids are accelerating.

Finally, there's Net Impact, the membership organization of more than 10,000 sustainability-minded MBAs and recent grads, which last week published a guide that rates university sustainability programs. It isn't the first group to do so: the biennial Beyond Grey Pinstripes report, originated by the World Resources Institute but now produced by the Aspen Institute, has ranked university programs since 1998 for "the teaching of social impact management" based on a survey of schools.

Net Impact's ratings (download - PDF) are different: it asked students to rate the programs, getting on-the-ground perspectives on social and environmental themes in MBA and other grad school curricula, career services, and student activities. The ratings were compiled from a qualitative survey completed by 39 Net Impact chapter leaders, and an online survey completed by nearly 1,200 student members. The resulting 122-page guide includes ratings, descriptions, and student quotes -- sort of a Zagat's guide to green academe.

In the ratings, one of the newest schools -- the Bainbridge Graduate Institute -- received the most top-10 ratings, followed by Duke's Fuqua School of Business, the Boston-based Simmons School of Management, Yale's School of Management, and another relative newbie, the Presidio School of Management.

Could all these ratings comprise a trend? I certainly hope so. There's a wide-open field for this kind of information, assuming it's done comprehensively and fairly. Ratings -- assuming they help to move the needle in public behavior -- can be a powerful force in getting companies and other institutions to transition to greener products and services, and in bringing public attention to those who do. (Plus, they get me off the hook of having to answer all those questions.)

There's no doubt more to come this fall. In September, for example, there's the latest annual edition of Conde Nast Traveler's GreenList ratings of ecotourism spots.

And of course, what may be the mother of all green ratings: the U.S. midterm elections.

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