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Top Companies Make the SB20 List

Unless they spend a lot of time reading the fine print in corporate sustainability reports, it’s hard for green investors to know which companies truly stand out. These days, every company claims to be concerned about the environment.

© Elizabeth Prager

That’s why SustainableBusiness.com selects 20 top publicly traded companies each year that have either made substantial progress toward driving sustainability through their business or are leading the way with a technology that can make a significant difference.

This year, 12 leading social/environmental investment analysts nominated companies; four of them served as judges to make the final decisions. The SB20 isn’t a "BUY" list, but companies must be strong financially as well as being sustainability leaders to make the list. It consists of companies of all sizes from many regions.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is the hottest sustainable business sector this year; more than half the current list consists of leaders in wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and efficiency. We chose Conergy, REC and SunPower from the solar sector because of their unique contributions. Conergy (Germany) provides the full range of solar options: electricity, heat, hot water and air conditioning. It can also combine small-scale wind and biofuels with solar, offering customers a complete renewable energy solution. REC (Norway) stands out as the most vertically integrated solar company, producing silicon, wafers, cells and modules. SunPower’s (USA) solar panel is the most aesthetically pleasing, and the least expensive on the market.

Another company on this year’s list involved in renewable energy is Energy Conversion Devices (USA). Ton Rennon of Triodos Bank summarizes the judges" feelings about it: "For me, no company is more innovative in renewables. Its solar and battery discoveries will have a huge impact."

Spain’s Abengoa and Acciona are in the process of transitioning from conventional businesses to a focus on sustainable products and services. Abengoa builds various types of solar, bio-ethanol and desalination plants and is a leading innovator in cellulosic biomass. Acciona is the world’s third-largest wind project developer and is also a major player in solar projects, with emerging interests in biodiesel/biomass and small hydro.

Ormat (U.S.) is the world leader in geothermal energy, with special strengths in energy recovery. Gamesa (Spain), the world’s second-largest turbine manufacturer, has also started a solar division. It is the only profitable wind company right now.

Maxwell (U.S.) is the leading company commercializing ultra-capacitors, an important enabling technology that stores energy produced by wind or solar, or in hybrid vehicles, for later use.

What’s new for Philips (Netherlands), a longtime sustainability leader, is its focus on light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which have the potential to revolutionize lighting efficiencies.

Sharp (Japan) is the world’s largest solar manufacturer, and is also an efficiency leader, currently working to make the ever-larger LCD TV (Sharp holds a 30 percent share) more energy efficient and with fewer toxic components.

Natural Resources: Water, Forests, Land Development

BWT Water Technology (Austria) is working to eliminate chemicals in water treatment. JM, Sweden’s fourth-largest real estate developer, builds on brownfields, uses high-efficiency appliances and windows, and was the first to develop a green building materials database. Precious Woods (Switzerland) is the only publicly traded sustainable forestry company, operating in the Amazon and re-foresting degraded pastureland.

Natural Foods/Natural Products

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Whole Foods Market have made the SB20 list all five years. This year, Green Mountain, through its partnership with Newman’s Own, started supplying organic and fair-trade certified coffee to 650 McDonald’s stores. "This is the start of bringing sustainable coffee to the masses," says Patrick McVeigh of Reynders, McVeigh Capital Management.

United Natural, the U.S.’s largest natural products distributor, moved to a regional warehouse model this year, reducing fuel use. Whole Foods Market is now the largest corporate user of renewable energy, running on 100 percent wind. Interface is a world leader in the production of modular carpet, and commands a thoroughgoing environmental ethic in all its operations.

Pharmaceuticals and Banks

Novartis joined the list because of the CEO’s outspoken advocacy on climate change and the new Sustainable Wage Program. The company surveyed its workers worldwide last year, asking whether they were being paid a living wage. Those who weren’t got raises. Suppliers are now being asked to follow suit.

Wainwright Bank recently issued the first company-specific Certificate of Deposit (CD) in the U.S. Proceeds from the CD go to support Equal Exchange, the employee-owned, pioneering fair- trade company.

RONA FRIED is president of SustainableBusiness.com, and operates Green Dream Jobs and Progressive Investor.