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The Quick & Dirty: A Tale Of Two Cities — Rankings, Awards and Other Popular Myths

Henk Campher
| Thursday March 27th, 2014 | 1 Comment

Worst Company in America 2014“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Wow… And I thought this was the opening paragraph of “A Tale Of Two Cities.” Maybe it was, but it best describes how I feel about rankings, ratings, awards and everything else the experts do when they try to tell us which company just passed sliced bread as the best sustainable thing ever. Better than the real thing. Better than all the rest. Simply the best.

This time it wasn’t the usual daily-inbox-flooding set of Top 100 or Best Of or Greenest or Most Loved lists that got me going. This time it was one of my favorite morning reads, the Consumerist — usually the place I go for a quick chuckle about who got into what trouble while I was sleeping. But this time it got me a bit worked up because it is the start of their 2014 Worst Company In America competition.

There were a few names on there that I don’t like and would put on my personal list, too. But the thought that hit me first when I read the list was the Twitter joke #firstworldproblems. Do they really think Yahoo or eBay or Microsoft or CVS should be on that list compared to cigarette-makers or companies that spill chemicals into waterways or oil into neighborhoods or employ illegal workers on farms and factories and pay them next to nothing in slave labor conditions? Really? You think the things you identified make a company the worst company in the USA? Really?

Of course they don’t. They are just making a list of companies who annoyed them and their readers in the last year or so. No real substance behind the list — just a “I had a bad experience and will now take it out on you for revenge.” No substance, no science and no credibility. And it wasted a precious 3 minutes of my commuting and reading time.

Make no mistake, those many awards and rankings and ratings and numerous lists that sustainability experts push out every day aren’t much better. It is all in the eye of the beholder. How else can you have such huge differences between CR’s 100 Best Corporate Citizens compared to Corporate Knights Global 100? Throw in Best Global Green Brands, and you are ranked No. 1 on the Most Confused Sustainability Expert With A South African Accent list.

How do you get a cigarette company to be listed as a better corporate citizen than Nike or Starbucks? You know the end product kills, right? You can make a Fair Trade certified cigarette, but it will still have the same outcome. How do four car companies make it into the top five of greenest companies? You know that no matter how fuel efficient their cars are, they are still made with metal and (mostly) burn fossil fuels, right? So how did they get there ahead of a Johnson & Johnson or IBM? How do two oil companies get listed in the top 10 global companies above a Unilever and Natura? You know they are oil companies, right?

I’m not climbing into any of the companies listed higher than others. That’s not their fault. Heck, I drive a SUV. A small one but not a hybrid. My problem lies with the people making up the list. They are just making it up as they go along this merry sustainability road.

Each one will decide their own criteria according to what they believe should be the right way to make a judgment on who their research shows is the best. Some of them are pretty honest and list who are clients or who are members. But most of them just develop criteria, and we are told that these are the right criteria to assess whether this company is sustainable or not.

Lies, damn lies and statistics.

The criteria used is just an opinion. Sustainability is more complex than a simple ticking of boxes. A Timberland cannot be judged in the same way a BP is judged. They are only similar in that they are both called and defined as “a business.” But they are apples and oranges. Yes, apples and oranges are both fruits, but we won’t mix them up when making a list of what is best. That will come down to the criteria we create and our personal choice.

But don’t blame companies. They all want their products to be seen as sustainable. They all want to win the race. The reality is that this is simply not possible. Not all products are equal when it comes to sustainability. Not all products are sustainable. They simply cannot all be sustainable. We wouldn’t be in this amount of trouble if they all were as good as the lists told us they were. Remember, how a product is made is only half of the story — the other half is the impact of the product itself. A Fair Trade cigarette? A responsibly mined piece of coal? A humanely slaughtered whale? Remember the end product. It’s too complex to simply make up a bunch of criteria based on GRI or whatever gets you going in the morning.

So stop making up lists of the good or the bad as it all just turns into the ugly. None of these lists or awards are sustainable. Or be honest about the severe limitations of facts, figures, criteria and those damn statistics. Nothing wrong with an opinion (I just gave you one), but don’t mask it with faux science and a list or ranking that give it some flavor of science. An apple a day keeps the doctor away and an orange is more than just a pretty color. But they aren’t the same — no matter what your opinion might be.

Remember that opening paragraph of “A Tale Of Two Cities.” Right now we are starting to look like we are living in the age of foolishness and not wisdom. These lists are more the epoch of incredulity than belief. It creates more Darkness than Light. It brings me despair not hope…

I leave you with my favorite lines from “A Tale Of Two Cities” that reminds me of these lists and rankings and awards:

“What did you make of it, Tom?”
“Nothing at all, Joe.”
“That’s a coincidence, too, for I made the same of it myself.”

Image credit: A portion of the Consumerist’s 2014 Worst Company in America bracket

A series of quick & dirty opinion pieces by Henk Campher. Senior Vice President, Business + Social Purpose and Managing Director of Sustainability at Edelman out in the Wild West of San Francisco.  Disrupter of purpose. Engineer of big ideas. Slayer of myths. Social media junkie – @angryafrican. He never wears ties. Ever. But always wears an accent with a strategy and opinion in his back pocket. Please note this series will not focus on individual companies and any reference is purely to provide color commentary.

Follow Henk Campher on Twitter.


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  • http://davidcoethica.wordpress.com/ David Connor

    Amen.

    Coincidentally, I had a quick insight yesterday into a new non-profit project called Wikirate (www.wikirate.org) that could quite well join the grand list of ‘algorithm black box’ shenanigans above, or possibly add a interesting open and crowdsourced option into the mix. Far too early to tell as yet but definitely worth watching.

    A laudable, if challenging aim of ‘crowdsourcing CSR practices’ heads the low-budget fanfare but if nothing else it may shake up the list / ratings builders community.