Poll showcases need for improved sustainability communications

Perception study finds Johnson & Johnson boasts best reputation for social responsibility and points up need for better definitions around the notion of business sustainability.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

You know what they say about perception being reality. But I have to admit that the new 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility Index published by the Boston College Carroll School of Management and the Reputation Institute prompted me to sit back and think.

I was, frankly, somewhat surprised by which companies showed up in the top 10. Then I realized that I have been mistakenly equating the topics of corporate sustainability and social responsibility. I think the two go hand-in-hand, and I believe that one of the first ways for any company to be more socially responsible is by concentrating on creating a sustainable business model -- from a resource point of view -- and on being a great environmental citizen. Apparently, the general public doesn't think the same way I do, because some of the companies I know are doing great things that one would fit into the corporate sustainability category don't show up as high as I would expect.

First, some background. The report in question really measures consumer reputation, in this case, the reputation of 230 of some of the largest companies in the United States. If a company was a business-to-business company (such as Intel), they were only included if their corporate identity was very familiar to the U.S. general public. The companies were picked by Boston College and from businesses included in the Reputation Institute's 2010 Global Reputation Pulse Study. Something like 7,790 online consumers in the United States offered their opinions for the study in January and February 2010. The methodology was intended to highlight the companies' work in Citizenship, Governance and the Workplace. Other metrics included Products/Services, Innovation, Leadership and Performance.

Here's which companies come out as the Top 10 Most Socially Responsible Companies in the United States:

  1. Johnson & Johnson
  2. The Walt Disney Company
  3. Kraft Foods
  4. Microsoft
  5. PepsiCo
  6. Apple
  7. Hershey
  8. SC Johnson
  9. Kellogg
  10. Google

Certainly, these are some of the best-known companies in the United States and I know I am biased when it comes to technology companies, but I have to admit that I was a bit puzzled by the fact that Microsoft showed up higher on the Top 50 list than Google, Intel (No. 12) and Hewlett-Packard (No. 48). Not that Microsoft isn't doing great things with citizenship or in ensuring that its data centers move toward improved energy efficiency as the world moves toward cloud, but all three of the other companies have been much more active, frankly, in the areas of green power development. I was really baffled by the exclusion of IBM and Cisco, which has been highly active in the smart cities and smart transportation movements, both of which will have an enormous future impact on our world. Maybe they were excluded because of their busines to business focus, but I think both have more brand cachet than Medtronic (No. 46).

Anyway, to me this is another indicator that those of us who talk about, write about and advocate the idea that businesses should shape their strategy around sustainable practices for the environment, society and the economy (not necessarily in that order) need to get much more specific about how they talk about these things. Of course, this whole matter is being complicated by the Federal Trade Commission's new push to ensure that businesses that talk about being "green" get a whole lot more granular about what that means. In any case, note to self: attempt more specific definitions about "sustainability" when writing about same.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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