Shopping to stop global warming?

Ranking companies like Nike and Unilever on their climate change policies is a good effort, but may not have real impact on the environment. Fortune's Marc Gunther takes a look at Climate Counts.

By Marc Gunther, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Can buying a Canon camera, a pair of Nike sneakers or a bar of Dove soap help curb global warming?

A new group called Climate Counts certainly hopes so. The nonprofit organization has rated 56 consumer companies, identifying what it calls leaders and laggards around the issue of climate change. Its goal is to persuade people who care about the environment to support corporations that take climate change seriously, and avoid those that do not.

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Canon (Charts), Nike (Charts, Fortune 500), Unilever (Charts) (which makes Dove) and IBM (Charts, Fortune 500) led the pack. At the bottom of the list? Jones Apparel Group (whose brands include Nine West, Anne Klein and Easy Spirit) CBS, Burger King, Darden Restaurants (the Red Lobster people), Wendy's and, perhaps surprisingly, Amazon.com (Charts, Fortune 500). They were all given a zero score.

The rankings are not driven by absolute levels of greenhouse gas emissions. If they were, a manufacturing giant like General Electric (Charts, Fortune 500), which scored well, would fare worse than Burger King or Amazon.com. Instead, Climate Counts looks at whether companies measure their climate footprint, what they are doing to reduce emissions, whether they support strong climate legislation and how well they disclose their activities.

The rankings are the brainchild of Gary Hirschberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farms, a company that has built a strong brand around health and environmental values. A lifelong environmentalist, Hirschberg ran a small organic farming school before joining Stonyfield in 1983.

"We want to provide an incentive - a carrot as well as a stick - to companies to take the necessary actions to reduce their climate footprint sooner, rather than later," Hirschberg says. "It's clear we have a limited amount of time to make effective change."

Other companies that scored well, at least compared to their peers, are SABMiller in beer, News Corp. in media, Starbucks in food, Procter & Gamble in home products and Yahoo among Internet and software firms. Complete rankings can be found at http://www.climatecounts.org/.

Ratings like these raise a couple of obvious questions. Are they fair, accurate and relevant? And will they make a difference?

To its credit, Climate Counts is clear about what it is measuring and how it arrived at its scores. Each company was contacted during the research process, the group says, and each will be able to respond to its ranking.

Hirschberg says: "You can measure and score intent and commitment pretty well."

The relevance of these rankings is another matter. Climate Counts did not rank automakers or oil companies, for example, even though those sectors are major emitters of greenhouse gases.

That's a missed opportunity. Green consumers probably would like to know, for example, that BP and Conoco Phillips have come out in support of strong federal controls on greenhouse gas emissions, while ExxonMobil has not.

Nor did the group tackle the vast retail sector, where Wal-Mart has been a leader around the issue of sustainability.

Wood Turner, the project director, said: "We made a decision to start...with a snapshot of consumer companies not typically associated with the issue of climate change." He said the list may be expanded next year.

The bigger question is whether ratings like these have impact. Persuading people to shop less - for anything and everything - would make more of a difference. And it's hard to believe that consumers of beer and fast food will opt for Miller or McDonald's because of climate change issues.

Hirschberg says it doesn't take millions of people to get a company's attention. "If you're a consumer company and you get 5,000 or 10,000 text messages or e-mails, that's going to have an effect," he says.

Joel Makower, a consultant who helped with the ratings and wrote a book on green consumption back in 1990, also believes that Climate Counts can make a difference.

"Climate Counts levels the playing field for consumers, helping them understand who the real leaders are on climate change," Makower says. "I think it has a great chance of moving the needle - helping the public take action, whether it's supporting the leaders, boycotting the laggards, or taking action as investors, employees or job-seekers."

Fortune contacted the six companies that scored a zero in the rankings by e-mail. A spokesman for Amazon.com said the company promotes green behavior and eco-friendly products on a "sustainable living" Web site and that it uses recycled content, which reduces emissions, in its packing materials. The other companies either declined to comment on Climate Counts or didn't respond. Top of page