by: Joel Makower
Today marks the launch of Climate Counts, a new nonprofit initiative to rate major consumer brands on their climate commitments and performance. The project, on whose board I sit, represents the first time big companies have been rated consistently on climate using a comprehensive, consistent, and credible set of metrics.
This is no small matter. As climate change has grown in public consciousness, companies increasingly are stepping up to the plate, making commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, or announcing carbon-neutral products, services, or events. There's a steady stream of business announcements, as we report daily on ClimateBiz.com. (Business for Social Responsibility recently compiled a list of companies and projects that have committed to going carbon neutral, downloadable here.)
But which of these is real, and which are mere marketing gimmicks? Which companies are making substantive commitments and progress, and which are mere window dressing? Until now, it's been hard to discern.
Climate Counts began about a year ago, an offshoot of Climate: A Crisis Averted, the four-minute "documentary from the future" produced by the yogurt company Stonyfield Farm. (I was co-writer and executive producer of the movie.) Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield's "CE-Yo," who spearheaded the project, wanted to do more to engage consumers directly in the climate action movement. Climate Counts was the result.
The data released today rate 56 companies on a 100-point scale based on more than 20 criteria in four categories:
- How well does the company measure its climate footprint? (up to 22 points)
- How much has the company done to reduce its global warming pollution? (up to 56 points)
- Does the company explicitly support (or express intent to block) progressive climate legislation? (up to 10 points)
- How clearly and comprehensively does the company publicly disclose its climate protection efforts? (up to 12 points)
You can view and download the scorecard and its criteria here.
The scorecard methodology was developed by GreenOrder, the strategy firm (with which I am also affiliated) that has helped a number of big companies address sustainability challenges and opportunities. GreenOrder also served as third-party verifier of the data collection process. All of the rated companies were shown the data Climate Counts collected about them -- compiled from a range of publicly available sources -- and were invited to amend or correct the information. Most did; a few did not.
The 56 rated companies garnered scores ranging from 77 to zero. You can view the individual company ratings alphabetically, by ranking, or by sector. There's also a downloadable pocket-sized guide (PDF) you can use while shopping. You can even get the Climate Counts score of a particular company delivered to your cell phone.
And the whole shebang, including all of the company ratings, is available in a downloadable 65-page report (PDF).
This first batch of rated companies reflect major consumer brands in eight sectors -- Apparel/Accessories, Beverages and Beer, Consumer Electronics, Food Products, Food Services, Household Products, Internet and Software, and Media. There will be a new batch of ratings every six months or so, and all company ratings will be updated annually.
There were a few surprises. For example, the company that scored highest was Canon, the consumer electronics company, which has not been very visible as a climate leader. On the one hand, that's rather refreshing: a company doing good, green work but not necessarily banging the drum. On the other, it's risky: Being humble about one's corporate climate performance will no longer be seen as an asset. Increasingly, as Climate Counts underscores, companies are expected to be public and transparent about their climate commitments and performance.
Companies who fared worst include Amazon.com, Wendy's, Darden Restaurants (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and others), Burger King, Jones Apparel (Anne Klein, Nine West, and many other brands), Clorox, Yum! Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, others), Levi Strauss, and eBay.
What does it mean to be a low-scoring company? The 16 companies that scored 10 points or less haven't taken even the first meaningful steps to address their climate impacts. Few of these companies have measured or assessed their climate footprint, set clear policies or goals, or demonstrated that they take their climate actions seriously and are ready to engage the public in their plans.
On the eve of the Climate Counts launch, I asked Gary Hirshberg his thoughts on how this project turned out. "What surprised me is how elegantly simple and workable this rating tool actually is," he responded. "The scoring system effectively measures a minimal level of commitment. We focused on which companies are doing the basic stuff needed to make themselves a good climate citizen. It will do exactly what we wanted it to do in terms of letting consumers and investors know which companies are doing that."
Hirshberg also said that he was "wowed" by how useful the tool was for his own company. (Stonyfield rated a respectable 62 points, sixth overall, a score that Hirshberg admits he expected to be higher; its parent company, Group Danone, fared less well, scoring 50 points.) "The scoring gave us a very simple and reliable way of knowing internally if we are doing everything we could be -- which it turns out we're not -- and it gave me an incredible index for goal-setting. This isn't just a one-time tool. This is setting up a continuous improvement process."
As a result of going through the Climate Counts scoring process, Stonyfield is setting up ten "Mission Action Plan" groups -- teams engaged on different aspects of company operations, from transportation to processing to purchasing. "They're focused on what it's going to take to improve our score," says Hirshberg. For example, he says, Ryan Boccelli, Stonyfield's Director of Logistics, is now using the metrics of the Climate Counts scorecard to better manage Stonyfield's relationship with Ryder, the company's national transportation partner. "Ryan now has an index, a language, and a team because everyone else is able to use the same language. It's really revolutionized our abilities."
That's the ultimate goal, of course. Rating companies and educating consumers about leaders and laggards on climate change is just the means to an end. The goal is to move the needle -- to get companies to use their ratings as a tool for improvement. I asked Hirshberg his vision of "wild success" for Climate Counts. His relatively modest response: That rated companies, on average, double their scores over the next twelve months.
We'll see in a year from now, when these companies are re-rated, whether that vision comes to pass -- and whether the public ratings of companies can change the climate on corporate action.