Joel Makower, the editor of GreenBiz.com and creator of the annual State of Green Business report, interviewed Peter Bernstein and Annalyn Swan of ASAP Media, Newsweek’s editorial partner in the green rankings. Bernstein told him that standardizing company scores to correct for industry bias was “the single most time-consuming subject” in developing the project’s methodology, which Newsweek did in conjunction with an advisory panel comprising five illustrious green business experts.
In his review at GreenBiz.com, Makower calls Newsweek’s work a “near-Herculean endeavor”:
[Its] rankings are straightforward, almost elegant, but it wasn’t a straight or easy path. Like most such rankings, they’re imperfect. They’ll likely be challenged and debated, especially by some of the lower-ranking companies, not to mention the activist/blogosphere community. But it may well be the best effort yet to rigorously and comprehensively assess the mainstream corporate marketplace — at least in the U.S.
Makower does not minimize the challenges inherent in “creating a defensible, easy-to-understand set of metrics on business and the environment in a world in which data can be sketchy, inconsistent, or simply nonexistent.” But he accepts and welcomes Bernstein’s characterization of Newsweek’s rankings as “a best first effort.” Done well, such initiatives could indeed lead to better disclosure of companies’ environmental impacts—and a more reliable methodology for evaluating their environmental performance.
It is a shame, then, that Newsweek sullies its hard work with a ridiculous, online companion article headlined, “Big Oil Goes Green for Real,” published a week before the rankings came out. The reporter, Rana Foroohar, catalogues a number of recent ventures—from ExxonMobil’s recent investment in algal biofuels to Chevron’s research into the development of carbon capture and storage technology—that supposedly epitomize the oil and gas industry’s commitment to being green. “The list goes on,” she writes, “And this time it’s the real deal.”
Says who? Such conclusions amount to needless editorializing at best and shameless pandering at worst. It is much better to let the facts speak for themselves, which they do quite well. There are many interesting stories to be told about fossil fuel companies slowly beginning to invest in renewable and alternative energy sources—but there is no reason to aggrandize these efforts. In late August, for instance, I criticized Forbes for screwing up what could have been a very enlightening piece on ExxonMobil’s investments in natural gas with a hyperbolic headline calling the oil giant the “Green Company of the Year.” On Newsweek’s list, ExxonMobil ranks 395th out of 500, an appropriate slot for a company that still challenges the development and deployment of clean energy almost every step of the way.
Foroohar’s article is rendered all the more infuriating by another online companion piece at Newsweek headlined, “It Ain’t Easy Being Green,” with the dek: “But it is easy to say you are. Why some companies are pretending to be more eco-conscious than they actually are.” In that piece, reporter Weston Kosova lambasts the hotel industry’s practice of urging guests to reuse towels and sheets in the name of environmental protection. Kosova calls this and similar policies “petty green fakery” and scoffs at the idea of treating companies like Chevron as “environmental heroes” because of clever ad campaigns. His article is stocked with this kind of admirable, old-school skepticism—skepticism that should have graced Foroohar’s piece, as well.
All said, however, Newsweek deserves credit for its Green Rankings. As Makower notes, they are certainly imperfect; still, with so many honest environmental initiatives and so much greenwashing happening at the same time, we need a reliable and replicable way to gauge the business world’s performance.