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Mother Nature Doesn’t Care about Your Green Ranking

The components used in the scores, just like the scores themselves, are merely estimates and have little connection to reality. Everything that has gone into the Newsweek ranking is arbitrary; from the use of revenue to normalized impact scores to the choice of weighting factors and the use of z-scores. Early twentieth-century English philosopher A. N. Whitehead called this kind of error the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.” Even if the numbers were algebraically correct, the real difference between a score of 98.87 and 98.56 is of no meaningful consequence. It is ingenuous to conceal this arbitrariness behind four significant figures. The tangible result of these scores allows the magazine to sell more issues and some firm to boast about being Number One or Two, as if that meant something special.

But, special to whom? Maybe to the stockholders or some regulatory agency or a prospective employee, but the party with the most interest in the matter is Mother Nature, and her question might be, do these numbers have anything to do with how you are treating me? Maybe in some small way, but not in any way that is directly correlated with how badly our environmental world is faring. Mother Nature cares only about the upset we are causing her, not about the intentions or reputation a company possesses. The environment is affected by the actions we take, not by our good intentions or what people say about us. Green policies are just writing on a piece of paper; they mean little until enacted. More than fifteen years ago, my MIT students found that companies that sign on to voluntary, industry-based regulatory programs show great disparities in how they perform under the programs.

—John R. Ehrenfeld and Andrew J. Hoffman

Reprinted with the permission of Stanford University Press. Copyright © 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University

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The Reviewer

  1. Gil Friend is the founder and CEO of Natural Logic Inc., a strategic advisory firm. A systems ecologist and business strategist with more than 40 years of experience creating value at the intersection of business and sustainability, he is an inaugural inductee in the Sustainability Hall of Fame. Friend is the author of The Truth about Green Business (FT Press, 2009).

This Book

  1. Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability (Stanford Business Books, 2013), by John R. Ehrenfeld and Andrew J. Hoffman

    John R. Ehrenfeld is professor emeritus at MIT, where he was the director of the Program on Technology, Business, and Environment. He has served as executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology and senior research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. A prolific writer, Ehrenfeld is also the author of Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture (Yale University Press, 2008).

    Andrew J. Hoffman is the Holcim Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, a position that holds joint appointments at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment. He also serves as director of the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. He is co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Business and the Natural Environment (Oxford University Press, 2012) and author of Carbon Strategies: How Leading Companies Are Reducing Their Climate Change Footprint (University of Michigan Press, 2007).
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