It's not easy judging green

It's not easy judging green

 BY LINDA BAKER | OB EDITOR

06.03.13 GreenListShould a property manager linked to a massive, pesticide-induced bumblebee die-off make our list of the state’s best green companies to work for?  What about a law firm working on behalf of the coal industry?

Last week, more than 50,000 bumblebees were killed by pesticide poisoning in a Target parking lot in Wilsonville, Oregon. The property is managed by Elliott Associates, a firm that ranked No. 73 on our 2013 100 Best Green Companies to Work For in Oregon list.

The die-off is the subject of an investigation by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Spokesperson Bruce Pokarney said the agency is not releasing names of the companies involved, including subcontractors that applied the pesticide, until the investigation is completed.

Nevertheless, Elliott Associates is taking a lot of heat, and several people have contacted me, irate that a company linked to the bee die-off made our best green companies list.

(UPDATE: An exclusive from Elliott Associates co-owner Lou Eilliott follows this post).

They are not the first to complain. A couple of months ago, a Seattle-based environmental group called to ask why law firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt had landed on our 100 Best Green list in the past despite working on behalf on the coal industry.

Both the pesticide and coal industry issues raise provocative questions about green business rankings in general — and our 100 Best Green Companies to Work For in Oregon list in particular. 

Here is our good faith effort to grapple with those questions.

First, our 100 Best Green list is a green workplace ranking, not a green company ranking.  Brandon Sawyer, OB Research Editor and director of the 100 Best project, explains:

"Even if companies are receiving income from business activities related to an anti-sustainable industry or project, I don’t feel that we can omit them from this particular list, since they are playing by the rules of our methodology. The list  honors green workplaces, not enterprises — It is the “best green companies to work for” -- and is based on a 10-question survey of employees measuring their satisfaction with their companies green policies and the importance they ascribe to those practices.

 A separate 15-question employer survey asks about specific workplace practices: recycling, transportation, energy conservation and renewables, green facilities and supply chain, etc.

 If we find compelling evidence that employers are misrepresenting these policies or that employee feedback is not honest or accurate, that is a different matter, but we have to apply the same standards for all companies that enter the survey, regardless of their industry or relationships."

As Brandon points out, the 100 Best Green Companies to Work For list may include companies engaged in unsustainable business practices. But do those practices negate company efforts to green their workplaces — by reducing waste, water and energy use and by creating a healthier work environment for their employees? Regardless of industry, sustainable workplaces reduce environmental impacts. We believe those practices should be recognized, albeit in context.

We acknowledge other contradictions associated with the 100 Best list, namely, that it is very difficult to rank companies across industry sectors. Thus a bank aiming to green its workplace faces very different challenges than, say, a mining company seeking to make its "workplace" more sustainable. It's an apples to oranges comparison that can yield some screwy results.

Blogger Marc Gunther at GreenBiz underscored similar contradictions in a post he wrote this past January about the Global 100, a list of the world’s most sustainable corporations. Two of the top five Global 100 companies were Scandinavian oil and gas companies.

"The perverse effect  [of the list]," Gunther writes, "is to reward not-so-good performers in laggard industries and penalize the leaders in industries that, as a whole, are taking sustainability seriously…This may explain why the Norwegian and Finnish oil companies rank so highly; evidently, they are doing a lot better than, say, ExxonMobil or Chevron. By contrast, Unilever faces tough competition from the likes of Danone and Campbell Soup (which made the list) and Procter & Gamble (which didn’t)."

Given the myriad complications associated with identifying the best green anything, what is the value of corporate sustainability rankings? Are they just so much green washing?

We believe the 100 Best Green Companies to Work For in Oregon list has value. In 2013, local, state and global economies are still firmly rooted in fossil fuels and toxic chemicals. In that context, the metric is not so much whether companies ARE green, but whether companies are making an effort to move away from unsustainable practices — be it in the workplace or in business operations, products and services.

Or, as I wrote in my editor’s letter accompanying the green list this month, our 100 Best Green Companies project boils down to one clear imperative: the need for continuous improvement.

Going green is no easy task, and corporate sustainability rankings help call attention to best practices while hopefully inspiring other companies to adopt similar practices.

The 100 Best Green Companies to Work For in Oregon list is not perfect. But at risk of foisting blame elsewhere, the contradictions of the list reflect the contradictions of our economy at large. At Oregon Business, we are trying to navigate those contradictions by measuring and recognizing bona fide progress toward workplace sustainability.

Lou Elliott responds to bumblebee die-off.

Speaking to the press for the first time, Elliott Associates co-owner Lou Elliott told Oregon Business  the property management firm uses eco-friendly landscaping practices whenever possible and that the subcontractor responsible for using the pesticide uses organic products in 85% of its applications. "We retain professionals who have an orientation in doing things organically,"  Elliott said. "We chose two companies (contractor and subcontractor) that have a reputation for doing that."

Elliott revealed the identify of the contractor and subcontractor — under condition the names remain off the record.

The property management firm takes "full responsibility for the tragedy," Elliott said. Going forward, "we have met with the contractor and subcontractor to talk about their assisting us in developing a stronger policy for use of chemicals that we can take to owners and tenants of our properties. We will do what is organic whenever possible."

Contrary to reports stating the pesticide was used as a cosmetic control for the "sticky goop" produced by aphids, the treatment was intended to preserve the health of the linden trees, Elliott said, adding he had no idea the pesticide in question, Safari, was being used — or what it was. "One of things our company has learned from this: we didn’t realize these kinds of chemicals were being used and we should have perhaps paid more attention."

Elliott, a bike commuter, said the firm's latest green workplace initiative was purchasing bicycles for employee use.

Linda Baker keeps tabs on CEO and public policy issues.