Barclays Bank and the Brazilian mining group Vale have been awarded prizes for human rights abuses and environmental harm by the Swiss-based sustainable development group the Berne Declaration. They awarded Barclays the dubious honour for being “the fastest-growing food speculator in the world”, while Vale is helping to build the Belo Monte dam in the Amazon.
Previous winners of the Public Eye awards include other mining and energy companies, the pharmaceutical group Roche, and Royal Bank of Canada.
No doubt there could be plenty of other nominations for this unwanted prize. Depending on your point of view you might suggest any or all of the investment banks, any of the oil companies, in fact virtually any large multinational. For many people, any large company is evil purely because of the power it wields. Power corrupts, after all, as Lord Acton told us many years ago.
But wait a minute – which is the largest company of them all? That’s Apple (at least by its stock market value). And Apple is pretty popular, even with those anti-capitalists that would see the likes of Barclays, Tesco, WalMart and Goldman Sachs rot in the corporate equivalent of hell. In fact Apple has not only come top of an opinion poll in the US but has scored higher than any company ever before in the Harris poll.
This is despite the long-running stories about conditions in the factories of Apple’s suppliers in China, and despite the company scoring badly for years (until 2011) in the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics. Interestingly, the much-maligned Google slipped to second in the Harris poll but still scored very highly.
Well, nobody – and no company – is perfect. But it does raise the question of how to identify the world’s best companies.
You can see one approach on this YouTube teaser. This nascent Australian outfit has the lofty ambition “to unlock the potential inside each person on planet earth” while putting people before profit, acting with integrity and several other admirable traits.
It’s almost the sort of thing that could come from many a consultancy or corporate affairs department, except for putting people before profit – which would lead quickly to bankruptcy if taken literally.
The trouble is not just how to live up to such grand ideals, but that people’s priorities vary. Major corporations can’t please all the people even some of the time.
For example, if climate change is your top priority you might agree with SustainableBusiness.com that the Swiss-based engineering group ABB is brilliant because of its wind power business. On the other hand, ABB is also involved in coal power, so black marks for that.
Unilever, recent winner of the Financial Times’s Boldness in Business award for corporate responsibility, is widely admired for its commitment to long-termism and reducing the environmental impacts of its products. But it still has its critics. Some say its notion of “sustainable and equitable capitalism” is rather too much hot air and too little action, while its aim of “creating a better future every day” seems to mean selling more products like Magnum ice-cream and Lynx deodorants in emerging markets.
Even the sainted Marks & Spencer, with its wide-ranging Plan A (because there is no plan B for the planet) has weak spots. For example, trade unionists would highlight its opposition to collective bargaining, which means that it does not sign the United Nations’ Global Compact – seen by many large companies as a pretty basic human rights commitment.
The point is that there are no neat league tables showing wins, draws, defeats and points scored to pinpoint the best. There are as many ways of judging a company as there are judges. .
Roger Cowe is a writer and consultant on corporate sustainability.
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