The appearance of familiar names at the top of the latest sustainability ranking is more a reflection of successful marketing than proven performance, argues Peter Knight

Patagonia, Unilever, Coca-Cola: why is it always the same coterie of corporations who hog the sustainability limelight?

Are you, like me, a little weary of receiving the alert emails from GreenBiz, Environmental Leader and the rest, with the same club commanding the headlines? Surely there must be other companies that are doing interesting things, making strides in their “journeys” to sustainable nirvana?

Why should it always be the sellers of garish outdoor clothing, underarm deodorant and hydrating solutions who are up in lights?

This was brought into sharp focus recently at the annual release of the GlobeScan SustainAbility Leaders Survey, which ranks companies according to the perception of their sustainability performance. And guess who was top of the heap? Unilever, Patagonia...

Why is this happening and what should you do to crash the party?

GlobeScan, the market research company specialising in things sustainable, has been conducting this particular survey in association with the consultancy SustainAbility since 2009. It was a great service in those dark days when sustainability was something you did not mention in front of the children – an obscure hippy-like fascination with the idea that business could be both good and green.

GlobeScan and SustainAbility cleverly set about creating their own ranking for such businesses. If Forbes, S&P and others could have their lists, why not the greenies? Quite right. And what a great way to market their services.

Beards and Bromptons

The methodology was, and is, quite simple. GlobeScan says it believes in the wisdom of crowds, so why not ask the sustainerati, the sustainability glitterati who are made up mainly of men with facial hair who ride Brompton fold-ups?

Simply poll this small group of commentators, consultants and sustainability functionaries for their opinion, analyse the answers, rank the companies, and voilà – the crowd speaks!

This ranking is as silly as any other ranking, but at least there is a brutal honesty about it – pure sustainerati opinion with no attempt at black-box “methodologies” that produce rankings such as those from Newsweek.

If you want to register high on these lists it’s wise to remember their function. These are marketing devices for the organisations that create them. The CDP Leadership Index, another ranking, bears little resemblance to reality but it’s a great way to get the alpha types steamed up and involved when they are excluded or downgraded.

GlobeScan and SustainAbility use their survey to market their services – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But don’t fool yourself that such rankings in any way reflect the truth. None of the companies listed is a bad operator and all deserve to be top of the heap. But their presence on the list has far more to do with the way they project themselves than their actual performance. Crowds can be both wise and incredibly stupid – and extremely susceptible to good old-fashioned PR fluff.

What is instructive is how the top-rankers ensure they get noticed when the pollsters email. A good example is the way Patagonia, a privately held, highly idiosyncratic maker of outdoor kit and darling of the sustainerati, has climbed to the number two position in this year’s list.

First, its controversial founder, Yvon Chouinard, has been on the road again speaking at conferences and events. He is always good copy.

Second, and far more important, was the pre-Christmas advertising that gained wide attention in the US. Buyers were asked NOT to buy the Patagonia jacket in the ad. What a great wheeze. It pressed all the right buttons with the sustainerati, who hate consumption. The ad created a huge amount of chatter and did what ads are supposed to do – get people to buy your stuff.

Marketing matters

Name recognition is all-important in this particular survey. The UK retailer Marks & Spencer ranks well because it has made a great PR push about its strategy called Plan A. Wal-Mart, long the black sheep of the sustainerati, is high on the list because it spends a huge amount on marketing its environmental efforts and tenaciously defending its supply chain practices.

Can we expect a Kazakh copper miner, a Sri Lankan garment maker or a Kentucky coal miner to make the GlobeScan list next year? Not a chance. As long as these lists exist – and as long as the media serving the sustainerati remain no more than PR sheets – then expect little to remain unchanged. It’s a bit like Formula One racing – same players, same procession. Perfectly sustainable, in fact.

Peter Knight is chairman of Context.

CR Strategy  Peter Knight  rankings  sustainability rankings 

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