BP has evidently got its message across. The oil group, a leader in one of the most potentially harmful industries, has been voted not only by chief executives but also by activist groups and the media as the company that does most to protect the environment.
This is the first time the annual survey has asked about companies' environmental reputations, and unanimity on the top choice from such divergent groups of interviewees comes as a surprise. After all, businesses renowned for their environmental values, such as Body Shop and Ben & Jerry's (now part of Unilever), figure prominently among the favourites picked by environmentalists and journalists, while chief executives rate these far less highly, or not at all.
In the case of BP, however, there appears to be near consensus that it has made exceptional efforts to replenish environmental resources, develop alternative fuels and communicate with stakeholders. As one chief executive puts it: "They have got this 'beyond petroleum' tag these days, but I think they do live up to it. They have invested heavily in alternative energy. They are the leading supplier of solar energy panels . . . they have done a lot of marine research and they are an environmentally friendly company."
Comments from environmental pressure groups and the media back this up, if less fulsomely. "Their business causes a lot of damage to the environment," says one respondent. "However, over the years they have accepted their responsibilities and are constantly making efforts to reduce their impact on environmental resources. Although they have a long way to go, they deserve credit for their effort." Another attributes these developments to the leadership of Lord Browne, BP chief executive.
Comparisons are inevitably drawn with Royal Dutch/ Shell, regarded by certain interviewees as the environmental pace-setter in the industry. The chief executives make Shell their second choice, but environmental groups and media commentators are more equivocal, rating it fifth behind The Body Shop, Honda and Ford.
However, opinions diverge completely over another giant in the oil sector, ExxonMobil. Environmentalists have attacked it for opposing the Kyoto protocol on climate change. Yet it features in the CEOs' top 20 environmental favourites, particularly for having learned from the Valdez supertanker disaster in Alaska.
Also striking is the fact that McDonald's, the fast food company that has been a favourite target of anti-capitalists, features among the top environmental performers chosen by pressure groups and the media. Yet it does not appear on the chief executives' list.
The media and NGO commentators like its policies on recycling. "McDonald's promotes its business at the same time as encouraging people to recycle their packaging," says one respondent. "It has taken great steps to reduce waste," comments another.
Effective public relations and marketing emerge in the survey as significant influences on environmental reputation. One commentator nominates Ikea "because their advertising speaks about caring about the environment and I don't recall seeing any information in the international press contradicting this image." Another chooses BP "because they're trying to convince everybody that they're environmentally friendly, although I'm still not entirely certain that's the case. Basically I've seen their advertising campaign."
Awareness of "green" issues has grown strongly in recent years, but it is debatable whether the business world yet regards environmental performance as crucial when evaluating corporate success and reputation. Of the top 20 "most respected companies" companies in the world, 13 fail to appear in the chief executives' list of most environmentally-friendly businesses. They include Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, General Motors, Nestle, Southwest Airlines and Johnson & Johnson. There is far greater overlap when it comes to shareholder value: 14 of the "most respected" companies also feature in the top 20 list chosen by CEOs for creating the most value for their investors.
The business community may give less weight to green issues than environmental lobby groups do, but it appears to share their views of what constitutes good environmental management. The most important criterion of good performance for both chief executives and media/NGOs was whether a company had developed or invested in cleaner, greener products and processes.
The second most commonly cited criterion was whether a company had a clearly defined environmental strategy or code. The third was how well companies communicated with the outside world about their ethical behaviour, services or products.
Automobile manufacturers feature high on the list for both groups of interviewees, with Toyota placed third by chief executives, and Honda and Ford taking the third and fourth places nominated by journalists and activists. Toyota is praised for recycling car parts and developing cars powered by alternative fuels. Honda scores for similar innovative developments. Ford is described as having "an environmental conscience", demonstrated by such initiatives as its support for national parks, its Michigan factory roof garden and its recycling efforts.
Both groups of respondents pick more companies from the US than any other country. But the chief executives choose more Japanese companies and fewer UK ones than the NGOs and media commentators.
Half of the top 20 choices of each group do not appear in the other group's list. Thus, chief executives give plaudits to Weyerhaeuser, the US timber company, for the way it replants trees and pursues recycling, DuPont, the chemicals group, for concern about safety and the environment, and General Electric, for designing products for energy efficiency.
The media and NGOs choose less internationally known companies such as Otto Versand, the German catalogue retailer, Patagonia, the US outdoor clothing retailer, and Interface, the US commercial carpet manufacturer, for their imaginative handling of environmental issues. Otto Versand, which has won many environmental awards, is cited for using recycled paper in its catalogues, its commitment to environmentally friendly cultivation of cotton and distributing goods by rail and sea rather than by air.
GlaxoSmithKline is the only pharmaceuticals group to feature among the top 20 companies for environmental management, coming joint 18th with the UK's Co-operative Group, in the media and NGOs' list. "It's a well-managed company with minimal environmental impact," says one respondent.
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