Eco-companies customers love

A new study ranks firms by public perception of their environmental practices, but is the list rooted in reality, or just fancy PR work?

By Steve Hargreaves, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- There are certain companies everyone expects to top lists of environmentally friendly firms: Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Starbucks.

But McDonalds? Wal-Mart?

They were among the companies American consumers consider the most environmentally responsible, according to a recent study by the Hartman Group, a Seattle-based research firm.

The Hartman Group spent over six months doing Internet polling with over 1600 people and over 150 hours of in-person interviews.

As part of the study, people were given a list of companies and asked to rate the most environmentally responsible ones.

The top ten: Whole Foods (Charts, Fortune 500), Wal Mart (Charts, Fortune 500), General Mills, McDonald's, Trader Joe's, Coca Cola, Coca Cola Enterprises, Kellogg and Starbucks (Charts, Fortune 500).

Rounding out the bottom: Nordstrom, Nike, Burger King, Safeway, Macy's, BP, Shell Canada Limited, Royal Dutch Shell, Patagonia, Kroger and Gap (Charts, Fortune 500).

Patagonia at the bottom? The outdoor clothing company, while not necessarily a household name across the country, is widely regarded as one of the most environmentally responsible around. Which is exactly why people's perceptions may be based more on public relations rather than actual performance.

"Wal-Mart is making a lot of press," said Hartman Chief Executive Harvey Hartman, who said respondents are merely filling out a survey with a set list of companies and that the answers may therefore not reflect actual performance. "Because of its pure size it has an awareness factor." It's equivalent to political polls sometimes being distorted merely by a politician's name recognition.

For its part, Patagonia wasn't concerned about its lackluster ranking.

"We're very, very, small," said Tim Rhone, a spokesman for the company. "We don't look at it as a problem, we know our customers understand."

In reality, all the 34 companies on the list had a fairly good environmental track record, according to Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, a research company that rates firms on social and environmental responsibility, primarily for investors.

Among the top 10, seven scored an "A" rating or better. (Innovest's rating system goes from AAA to CCC.)

Yet even among the bottom 10, 5 scored an A or better. Not a single company on the list, most of which were highly visible consumer-oriented firms, scored below a BBB.

"Those companies have to establish a good public presence, that's what their sales are based on," said Heather Langsner, research director at Innovest.

What's interesting to note is where Innovest's ranking differ with public opinion.

McDonalds, Wal-Mart and Kellogg all made Hartman's top ten, yet none of those companies scored above a BB rating with Innovest.

For Wal-Mart, Langsner said the company is still dealing with wage and labor issues, which accounts for its lower score (and which would not have affected the Hartman survey, which asked only about environmental matters). She did note that the company is getting much better, especially in regards to their program to eliminate toxic materials from its products.

For McDonalds and Kellogg, it's the fast food/obesity issue that prevents them from scoring higher.

Conversely, second to last on the list sits Nike, stung by sweatshop issues a decade ago. It's Innovest rating: AAA.  Top of page