Weight Watchers, Abercrombie and Fitch Top Least Transparent Companies

I really don’t know what to make of Corporate Responsibility Magazine’s lists.

Earlier this year, the magazine released the eleventh edition of its 100 Best Corporate Citizens. The list has become the industry standard for corporate social responsibility measurement, closely watched by corporate PR departments. But it’s also been criticized for whitewashing corporate behemoths’ bad behavior and for allowing corporate PR departments to game the list.

Then this week, perhaps in response to such criticism, CR for the first time gave us the Black List, a much shorter dishonor roll of corporations with the least amount of transparency. The thirty or so companies on the list, including Weight Watchers and Abercrombie & Fitch, were chosen because they have little or no publicly available information on environmental impact, labor policies and other corporate behavior.

From the CR website:

We have a confession. What we have not told you is that every year after we publish the “100 Best Corporate Citizens List,” someone reminds us that we also have an obligation to publish the bottom of the list. Up until now, we’ve ignored that reminder. But we cannot ignore it any more. The “Black List” is the result of recurring demands to see which companies are the most opaque among the Russell 1000.

Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch has gotten the most press for being on the Black List, not because it happens to be at the top of the alphabetically-ranked list, but because Abercrombie, along with Weight Watchers, is one of only a handful of companies on the Black List most people have ever heard of before (Central European Media Enterprises anyone?).

Transparency, above all

But what are these listing measuring? And is it enough?

Transparency is the name of the game, the primary determinant of inclusion and ranking on CR’s lists, both best and worst. One suspects that if a company murdered orphans for profit but was 100 percent transparent about it, that company would, at the very least, stay off the Black List and probably end up on the Best Corporate Citizens List.

CR would probably argue, and they would be right, that having all that orphan-murdering data publicly available would inevitably prompt investors, consumers and others to shy away from the company.

But it also explains why companies like McDonald’s, many of the big oil companies and other behemoths with sullied reputations ended up on the Best List and not on the Black one.

What to make of this paradox? Does CR’s Best List launder the reputations of corporations with bad records? Does its Black List unfairly punish those who don’t have the budget for a social responsibility officer and strong PR team to massage the stats?

Or, as CR argues, does what gets measured get manage”? Do the lists trigger good behavior by companies even if the companies’ intentions in getting on the list are less than honorable?

I guess it comes down to which you believe is more effective: working within the system, with all the compromises that entails, or working outside the system, and thus in conflict with it.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

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