Corporate Report Cards

Green Audits Help Evaluate Investments Quickly and Confidently

Most of us have barely enough time to balance our checkbooks, let alone balance the environmental performance of companies we are evaluating for investment. But we do want to choose companies that use resources responsibly and whose products and services have relatively low impact on the environment. To save time, you may want to refer to the goldmine of information contained in green audits.

It’s a confusing category, because at least 50 different green audits measure environmental performance. A good place to start is with an early player in the field—the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES)—which publishes a set of environmental principles to which nearly 75 companies adhere.

Elizabeth Prager

Some lists of green-audited companies cost money to access, such as the Investor Responsibility Research Center’s Corporate Environmental Profiles and Innovest Group International (which found that environmental ratings correlate closely with financial performance and give a five percent advantage over competitors). See if your company or pension fund will subscribe to these detailed information services.

Wall Street and investment groups are chiming in on green audits. These include the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and criteria from the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ and Goldman Sachs. Investor groups including Domini Social Index and Calvert Mutual Funds also have developed green yardsticks.

If in addition to being an investor, you’re also a small-business owner, take advantage of free audits that may be available in your region. In California, the Bay Area Green Business Program rates car shops, restaurants, hotels and other small businesses. Susan Sakaki, consultant to the Alameda County Green Business Program, says similar programs are underway elsewhere in California, in Hawaii and Arizona.

Eco-labels such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star help consumers choose among products that use less energy. But most eco-labels evaluate one product, rather than a range of products—and even less the whole production philosophy of a manufacturer, according to Michel Compérat, a Europe-based manager for Thomson Multimedia. "The label is fine in itself," he observes, "but does not always mean that the manufacturer is committed to reduce energy consumption."

You can also see if your prospective investment is certified to International Standards Organization (ISO) 14000, which necessitates company-wide environmental improvement.

Consolidation of Audits

Wouldn’t it be easier for consumers and companies alike to have just one green audit instead of so many? Bill Shireman, president and CEO of Future 500 and author of What We Learned in the Rainforest thinks so. His firm has compiled 20 environmental and social indices into the Corporate Accountability Practices (CAP) Audit, a program developed in cooperation with Mitsubishi Electric, Nike, CocaCola and others. "Companies use this singular measurement exercise to save money and time," says Shireman. Sometimes management is surprised with audit results. "One company scored an "A" in workplace performance, but because management overlooked difficulties in environmental data tracking it ultimately received a "C" overall."

Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic, consultants in strategic sustainability and design, says to look online for stories on environmental practices and fines. Use www.greenbiz.com/reference/corpo rate_sites.cfm to easily access hundreds of companies" environmental reports.

Shireman recommends writing to a company’s executives to let them know that faring well on environmental criteria is important to investors like you. Participating in green audits also helps companies avoid legal liability over environmental issues. Shireman says, "Feedback from the marketplace, shareholders, the community and environmental activists is important to a company’s health."

Three more resources on company environmental performance are:

Idealswork, www.Idealswork.com. It’s particularly easy to use.

Environmental Defense Scorecard, www.scorecard.org. It lists toxic release information by zip code and industry sector.

The Global Reporting Initiative, www.globalreporting.org. Reports on sustainability issues of more than 2,000 companies.