How to evaluate a company

An important aspect of the Green Stars Project is that the ratings represent a cross-section of society rather than relying on the opinion of just one person or a select few. Each person can instill their review with their own individual perspective, their own expertise, and in some cases their personal experiences with the company or industry. Therefore, a set of strict rules on how to evaluate a company would work against this process. Instead, I’ll just suggest a few things to watch out for, based on my experience so far with writing green star reviews.

Criteria for ethical rating of companies

First of all, here’s a reminder of some criteria to consider when writing a review and deciding on a green star rating:

  • Unfair working conditions, child labor, and slavery
  • Exploitation of the planet’s resources; deforestation; pollution
  • Excessive greenhouse gas emissions and water usage
  • Use of harmful ingredients and materials
  • Lack of effort to reduce waste generation and increase recyclable or compostable content
  • Enormous salary disparities between upper management and the majority of workers
  • Gender inequality
  • Mistreatment of animals
  • Abuse of corporate power in the form of political lobbying and legal pressure
  • Tax evasion
  • Lack of monitoring of the material supply chain and oversight of subcontractors
  • Negative impacts on local communities

This list is not exhaustive, so feel free to use other criteria along the same social/environmental lines. Also, some of the criteria above don’t apply to every product or service (for simplicity I’ll just stay product from now on to denote either a product or a service). As a whole, we want to evaluate the impact that the product has on both society and the environment by looking at the entire product life cycle:

Upstream — everything that goes into generating raw materials and making the product;

During use — the impacts and costs of using the product;

Downstream — what happens to it after use.

It would be unreasonable to expect everyone to evaluate all aspects of the product (just as we don’t evaluate all aspects when writing a gold star review) so pick the criteria that you care about the most and use those in your evaluation. This will balance out in the end, resulting in an collective rating that represents the issues we care about the most.

Ethical rating scale

Ultimately, whatever criteria you use, you will have to come up with a rating on a scale of 1 to 5 green stars. This can actually be done without too much trouble when you consider what these ratings boil down to: a score of 5 equates to the top 20% of companies, 4 is better than average, 3 green stars is a neutral rating, 2 is below average and 1 equates to the bottom 20%, ethically.

A good place to start when reviewing a product is to examine it thoroughly. Start with the packaging (Is it recyclable or compostable?) and the information printed on it. Are there certifications listed on the package? Companies may also have statements about their commitment to local communities or the use of renewable energy in their facilities, etc. How about the ingredient list, or materials used to make it?

The need for education on where our stuff comes from.

If there are ingredients/materials that you know are controversial they may be worth looking into. For example, if there is palm oil, then it may be worth taking a few minutes to research whether the company uses sustainably sourced palm oil. Or, if the product is made from material that you’re not really sure about (e.g., neoprene or PVC), it’s useful to look into what these materials really are and how they are made.

We have become disconnected with the nature of the things we surround ourselves with, even the things we eat and put on our bodies. If one reviewer takes the time to research an ingredient or material and the social/environmental issues related to it, this can quickly impact thousands of consumers who read it, and snowball from there.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Then take a broader look at the product and the practices of the company that makes it. Information can usually be obtained in a reasonably short space of time these days. If there’s an overwhelming amount of information available (e.g., for larger companies) then you can simplify matters by narrowing it down to the issues that matter most to you.

Search for news items and independent articles that talk about sustainability or social impact of the company.

Using information directly from the company website.

Exercise caution when using information directly from the company website. Statements in the form of hard facts (e.g., “Our facility is 100% wind-powered.”) can be normally trusted, while more vague statements (e.g., “We are committed to improving the society and planet.”) don’t really amount to anything unless they are backed up by facts. Most large companies these days will have a blurb on their site about their commitment to the planet, workers, etc., including companies with poor track records on these fronts. On the other hand, we’ve come across some smaller, old-fashioned companies that don’t talk about sustainability or social impact on their website but actually turn out to be quite sustainable. As a result, it can sometimes be tricky determining how sustainable a company or product is based on their website. Generally speaking, however, a company that’s truly environmentally and socially responsible will have no trouble convincing you of this (e.g., New Belgium or Alter Eco).


Lawyered!

Take a look at this statement from the Hershey website (bold emphasis is theirs):

“Hershey is committed to sourcing 100 percent certified cocoa for all chocolate products around the world. Certified cocoa is verified by independent auditors to ensure the highest international standards for labor, environmental and farming practices.”

You would be forgiven for taking away the impression after reading this that all of Hershey’s cocoa is certified, right? Wrong! Reading further you learn that they are just committed to achieving this… by 2020. In fact they were the last major chocolate maker to make a commitment of this sort. So, what this means in reality is that most of their cocoa (90% in fact) is currently non-certified. Valid certification of the cocoa supply is a key social issue when it comes to chocolate since child slavery and poor working conditions are still prevalent on cacao plantations in West Africa.


More ethical alternatives

In some cases you may want to compare the product not just to other brands of the same product but also to broader alternatives. For example, if you were reviewing coconut oil then, in addition to comparing between brands of coconut oil, you could also consider how the environmental impact of coconut oil in general compares to that of corn oil. But stay within the same category of product: If someone wants to buy a chocolate bar then it’s best to suggest similar alternatives that may be better for the planet and society (it’s not that helpful to suggest that they eat some fruit instead!)

Two scores: conventional & ethical

Speaking of making sure that your reviews are useful to others, it’s important to also review the product in terms of the conventional gold star criteria such as quality and price. It’s also important to keep your green and gold star ratings separate and to be honest about them. If a product is great in terms of quality and price but terrible in terms of social and environmental impact then it should get a high gold star rating and a low green star rating (and vice versa if the opposite is true). I’ve learned from experience (i.e. feedback on whether the review was helpful or not) that some people don’t want to read about social and environmental impact, so it’s usually best to lead with the gold star evaluation and then follow with the green star criteria. It’s also helpful to include a summary that you are awarding X/5 gold stars based on quality and price, and Y/5 green stars based on social and environmental impact, either at the end of the gold star section of the review (and say something like “See below for details on social and environmental impact.”), or at the end of the review. And again, don’t forget to include your green star rating in the review title (or in the first line, on websites where there’s no review title). This will all become clear if you take a look at the example reviews here.

Evaluating the ethics of local businesses

Ethical evaluation of smaller, local businesses may seem daunting at first. However, it can actually be easier than you think, and may actually be good way to start writing ethical reviews. For example, if you are evaluating a local restaurant then you may want to consider how much of their food is plant-based, whether it locally-sourced and/or organic, is their coffee ethical, do they provide compostable containers for take-out, etc. If you eat meat or fish then you can check on whether the meat is free-range, and whether they provide sustainable fish choices.

If it’s a larger chain restaurant then you can also research issues such as treatment of workers, energy use, ingredient sourcing, etc. Again, evaluate the service using the criteria that are most important to you, and don’t be afraid to ask the staff a question or two. Businesses such as retail stores, banks, airlines, hotels, gas stations, etc. can be evaluated using a similar approach to that used for products by applying the criteria you find important, such as those posted at the top of this page.

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