When it comes to your environmentalism, are you a trend-chasing hipster who's all about global warming? Or more of a classic tree hugger, who considers the impact of your lifestyle and consumer choices on the air, soil and water supply as well? The question comes up because of two lists that recently ranked U.S. companies according to their environmental behavior. The lists got my attention because one applauds the positive -- consumer companies' best intentions for fighting global warming -- while the other draws attention to the negative -- the polluting that manufacturers are doing to their local air right now. There's some overlap between the two. General Electric ( GE), Procter & Gamble ( PG), Sony ( SNE) and Anheuser Busch ( BUD) landed on both. One has received heavy media attention and the other, not so much. Yet both could and should impact consumer behavior. The first list came out this month from Climate Counts, a not-for-profit started by Gary Hirshberg, who founded the organic dairy company Stonyfield Farm. It looks at how well major consumer companies are tackling climate change. According to its Web site, Climate Counts rates companies on a 0-to-100 scale based on how well they've "Measured their climate footprint, reduced their impact on global warming, supported progressive climate legislation and publicly disclosed their climate actions." The group lauds companies for good intentions and effort as much as for their actual success reducing GHGs, and it asks consumers to encourage them further in this direction with their purchasing decisions.
The survey results have gotten a lot of press. Everyone from The New York Times, to Fortune to enviroblogs like No Impact Man to the Environmental Leader have had something to say about it. A few weeks earlier, the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst released its Toxic 100, a list of large companies that are releasing the most pollutants, like lead, mercury, cyanide and sulfuric acid, into the air around their manufacturing plants in the U.S. PERI would also like consumers and shareholders to use its list to pressure corporations into behaving better, but it received much less press, mostly short acknowledgements on activist blogs like Environmental Leader and Enviroblog. The difference in coverage could be that PERI is a wonky research and policy institute led by academics, whereas Climate Counts is a not-for-profit that has super-media-friendly Hirshberg behind it. It could also be that climate change is the hot issue du jour and everyone wants to cover it, while environmental problems like poisonous air are just so last decade. The four companies mentioned received pretty good grades from Climate Counts: Their scores ranged from 50 (Anheuser Busch) to 71 (General Electric, but only its media business because of the list's consumer focus) out of 100. Each garnered a green "striding" tag as opposed to a yellow "starting" or a red "stuck." And all improved their score from last year's inaugural list: P&G gained 16 points, Sony 17 and Anheuser Busch a whopping 21. (Only Google ( GOOG) saw more improvement, gaining 38 points for a score of 55.)
But making the Toxic 100 list is inherently bad; being lower on the list, like Sony (78) rather than higher, like GE (7), only makes you less bad. Because of the very specific focus of each list, it's not necessarily contradictory for companies to show up on both. But it does raise the question of how an eco-conscious consumer spends her dollars. Do you support these companies for the good they're trying to do globally or penalize them for the damage that they're doing locally? Perhaps it's best to do both. According to PERI's data, Anheuser Busch spews far more pollution from its metal works than from its glass works, so perhaps a first step is to start buying your Budweiser in bottles rather than cans. Then drop a note to the folks in St. Louis telling them that you're happy about their efforts on the climate front, but still want to see more progress there and on other aspects of their environmental record. Climate Counts encourages this two-prong consumer effort by allowing people to email companies like A-B directly from its Web site. Similarly, P&G's Duracell brand seems to be largely responsible for its appearance on the Toxic list; its paper and health and beauty products are far less problematic (from an air-quality standpoint). So send a note off to that company, too. Then, on your next trip to the supermarket you can feel good choosing Charmin paper towels (if you must buy paper towels at all) or Clairol shampoo even while you find a greener alternative to those copper-topped batteries. Being an eco-conscious consumer always requires weighing goals and ideals along with practical things like price and quality. But lists like these that focus attention on critical corporate behavior make it easier to strike the right balance.