No company is perfect, but we've found four examples — Patagonia, Honest Tea, The Timberland Company and Seventh Generation Inc. — of companies that share their corporate social responsibility successes and recognize which areas can be improved.
The outdoor clothing and gear company is widely considered a leader in the corporate sustainability movement, and it's breaking the mold on how it talks about sustainability efforts, as well. On its website, the company asks and answers tough questions: Do children make your clothes? Do workers in factories making Patagonia clothes earn a living wage? Is it environmentally unsound to manufacture globally and ship goods great distances?
Even as the corporate world has moved en masse to publishing annual sustainability reports, Patagonia has eschewed standardized methods. Instead, it launched the Footprint Chronicles, a website that allows people to trace its Nano Puff Pullover, Chucabuco backpack and more than dozen other products from design through the manufacturing process and into its distribution system.
The Bethesda, Md.-based organic tea company gets high marks for its 2010 Mission Report, which did not sugarcoat a mixed record in meeting the goals the company set for itself when it began operating in 1998. Inside the 20-page document, the company touts its successes but also frankly assesses the work yet to be done in such areas as bottling its teas. While explaining a move to lighter-weight plastic bottles that require less petroleum-based raw materials and landfill space, Honest also acknowledges criticism of its use of plastic. It also promises to seek out Earth-friendly, plant-based packaging in the future. "Not too sweet, but satisfying — this should not be a cheerleading document, but rather one that discloses progress, shortcomings and opportunities for improvement," Seth Goldman, Honest's founder, president and "TeaEO," wrote in a letter introducing the findings.
Caveat: It's too soon to tell if Honest Tea will remain as true to its moniker now that it is a subsidiary of The Coca-Cola Company, which bought a 40 percent stake in Honest in 2008 and purchased the rest of the company in March.
THE TIMBERLAND COMPANY
The New Hampshire-based boot and apparel manufacturer beat out nearly 100 companies to win an award for the best sustainability report last year from the responsible investors' network Ceres and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. Ceres and ACCA praised the company for "an excellent discussion of the company's challenges and their efforts toward building an industry-wide standard for labeling." The group also praised Timberland for issuing quarterly updates instead of only one annual report and encouraging back-and-forth discussion with its customers and others interested in corporate sustainability.
The efforts to "engage" customers seem like a work in progress, however. The company runs an online Voices of Challenge Forum that invites critics to bring their concerns to Timberland corporate responsibility managers. But the initiative doesn't appear to have generated much interest among the boot-wearing public. A quick perusal shows the site gets only sporadic posts, mostly from executives who work in the "sustainability industry."
SEVENTH GENERATION INC.
The pioneering household products manufacturer has earned a reputation for unflinching frankness in discussing its efforts to stay true to the part of the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy from which it took its name: "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." Last year, Ceres-ACCA also honored Seventh Generation, in its case for the best sustainability reporting in the small and medium-sized company category. Among other things, Ceres-ACCA saluted the company for pushing its manufacturers and competitors to be more open about their sustainability efforts.
But concerns about transparency have dogged the company since Seventh Generation's board of directors ousted co-founder Jeffrey Hollender from the board and terminated his employment with the company last fall, more than a year after bringing in Chuck Maniscalco, a senior executive at PepsiCo, to replace Hollender as CEO. The concerns haven't dissipated, even though Seventh Generation hired John Replogle, a former chief of Burt's Bees ("Earth Friendly Natural Personal Care for The Greater Good™"), to replace Maniscalco as Seventh Generation's president and CEO in February.
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WHERE TO LEARN MORE
Here are a few places to find reliable sustainability specifics:
Consumer Reports and its sister site Greener Choices, a greenwash-busting website, evaluate claims made by the producers of food, electronics, automobiles and other consumer goods. The latter site also rates various environmental product seals and labels, among other things.
The Good Guide has rated more than 100,000 consumer goods, scoring each according to its impact on human health, society and the environment. Its cellphone apps make it possible for shoppers to check ratings while cruising store aisles.
UL Environment, a subsidiary of Underwriters Laboratories Inc., is a "source for independent green claims validation, product certification, training, advisory services and standards development" and has a database of goods it's reviewed.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has Smarter Living guides that cover a range of topics, from greener gardening to top-performing laptop computers. There are locavore food shopping tips and even recipes.
Treehugger has more than 100 guides.
To find out if a company has been sued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for violating environmental laws, search the agency's Enforcement and Compliance Web pages. The EPA has its own Green Purchasing Guides, too.
To check a company's record with the U.S. Department of Justice, just enter the company's name in the search box on the DOJ's home page.
TriplePundit covers corporate sustainability news.
MongaBay focuses primarily on global issues like the impacts of climate change, habitat loss and species extinction, but it also reports on consumer and business trends that factor into those wider issues. (For the etymologically curious, the founder of the site has written that its name is derived from an anglicized spelling and pronunciation of an island off Madagascar, Nosy Mangabe.)
While it's more of a business-to-business site, the Environmental Leader is a clearinghouse of corporate sustainability news and trends, as well as government regulatory news.