Founded in 1982, this D.C.-based non-profit doesn’t rate brands with a grading system. Since 1991 it has published a national directory of screened and approved businesses that are “growing the green economy.” Making it onto the list is not easy. When the directory launched 17 years ago, only 500 companies made the cut. Today, Co-Op America lists 4,000 companies, including Patagonia, Aveda, and Stonyfield Farm. In 2009, the list expands to 5,000, according to Todd Larsen, corporate responsibilities program director at Co-Op America.
So what does it take to make the list?
Sacrifice is required in addition to a strict approach to environmental issues and manufacturing processes. It also helps if a company’s operations are small. In fact, not a single company is on the list with sales surpassing US$ 1 billion. You won’t, for example, find Wal-Mart on the list. “We are glad they are adopting green practices, but they still have a long way to go,” explains Larsen. Also absent from the list are national retail chains; not even Whole Foods—the darling of many green consumers—is mentioned.
Companies must be “social and environmental leaders, representing the best practices of the top ten percent of their industries.” Co-Op America’s researchers evaluate a company’s impact on customers, employees (and not just the official employees, but workers within the entire supply chain), the environment, and the communities (and not just the community where a company is based, but other communities impacted by its operations).
The screening also analyzes many other aspects of corporate business such as product quality; the promotion and support of consumer health and safety; a focus on organically grown contents and cruelty-free production; energy usage and efficiency; the promotion and use of renewables; reducing waste reduction; and, well, the list goes on to address ten more areas, ending with “community impact and commitment to Fair Trade.”
Despite this expansive look at a company’s operations, asking for a cut-and-dry definition of green from Larsen reveals that the Co-Op's views on green encompass far more than just environmental actions.
“When we say green, we mean both socially just and environmentally sustainable,” Larsen said, adding: “Companies need to be careful that they are making claims they can really stand behind. If they are saying they are doing something that is green but the reality is a federal regulator is making them do that, then that’s not green.”
Indeed, the Green Business Pages are just the beginning for Co-Op America. Its mission to influence the debate on what makes a company a good corporate citizen demanded the creation of a system that keeps the bigger companies in check.
Next month, Co-Op America launches Responsible Shopper, an online feature at the non-profit’s website, coopamerica.org. Since big corporations have failed to qualify for inclusion in the Green Business Pages, the new feature ranks bigger companies against each other instead.
Co-Op is rating 20 industries, from oil to banking, giving conscientious shoppers a “lesser of two evils” ranking of corporate America’s biggest brands.
“None are truly green, but some are better than others,” Larsen said.