How do you decide if corporate sustainability initiatives are good enough?

Two major corporations, McDonald’s and Walmart made big decisions in regards to public health and I was challenged and amazed by the dialogue that ensued.

On one hand, I had colleagues, friends and bloggers who felt strongly it was important to commend the companies on the big steps forward they had made on increasing healthy menu options (McDonald’s) and addressing toxic chemicals in products (Walmart). On the other hand I had colleagues, friends and bloggers who said they couldn’t possibly say anything good about these companies given their track record.

This dialogue has challenged me to think deeply about what kind of criteria I use to determine if I’m going to praise a company for their sustainability efforts. At what point do I say “good job”?

I’ve asked a few of my blogging friends to respond to this question and create a diverse roundtable of differing viewpoints. My goal is to have a robust discussion about what role corporations can play in advancing the public health, environmental and social justice causes I care about. [ilink url=””]Read the roundtable discussion here[/ilink]

Below I’ve outlined my criteria for making decisions around whether or not to support a company’s sustainability program. It’s not definitive. It’s a first draft in articulating the criteria I use when deciding — what’s good enough?

1 – Does this new initiative move us towards protecting public health, the environment and a healthier vibrant community?

I tend to weigh progress on how it advances broader goals more heavily than other criteria. With some of my friends who don’t want to laud corporate initiatives, I sense they are concerned that support would help a companies reputation, something they aren’t willing to do or say. This could be a defining difference in whether or not someone is willing to support certain corporate policies.

2 – How robust is their plan in the scheme of the work that needs to be done & compared to their competitors?

A good example of this is when Walmart announced they were taking action on toxic chemicals in their products, increasing transparency about ingredients in consumer products and phasing out toxic chemicals over time. Within the context of what other retailers had done on this issue, it was a great first step towards our goal of safer products. On the other hand, J&J announced they would be phasing out two chemicals from their product line, in my viewpoint a small step in the grand scheme of things and long overdue.

3 – How much market share does this company have?

If a company is large like Target, Walmart or a fast food chain, will this move be a game changer in the marketplace, setting a new trend of sustainability. This doesn’t mean I am less likely to give credit to smaller companies for the steps they take, in fact I like to shop and support local businesses who are often ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability policies. If a company has a large market share however, it does mean the impact of their new policy (if big enough) can have tremendous impact moving us towards our goals (ala #1).

4 – Does commending good steps encourage more good behavior & instill hope in the masses? 

This point is about building a large, long-term movement of people inspired to take action. If someone takes part in an email petition to move a retailer away from toxic chemicals, and then they do, that is empowering and that person is more likely to take action again in the future. In a world where we have so much to work on, and companies have so far to go in the quest for sustainability — it’s nice to celebrate a victory every now and again. I need some hope, encouragement and progress to keep me going.

As Socrates said,

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but building the new.”

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