Green companies: sustainability may be in the eye of the beholder

Quickly: which company is greener? UPS or DHL? Stonyfield Farm or General Mills? Google or News Corp.? You may think all of these are no-brainers, but, in two of the three cases, your perception may not align with reality… at least in terms of action related to climate change. A new study, MapChange 2010, finds that, in many cases, there’s little alignment between real action by a company, and its “green” public perception.

Take delivery companies UPS and DHL. You likely picked UPS, but it turns out that both companies are very close in terms of action: UPS received a score of 69, while DHL received a 68. UPS, though, wins the perception battle: the scores aren’t even close. In the second pairing, the disconnect is even more pronounced: Stonyfield received a 81 for its action, and a 44 for its perception, while General Mills was almost the exact opposite: 49 actual vs. 82 perceived.

So, what exactly do these scores mean? The study, a cooperative effort of Vancouver green branding consultancy Change, Angus Reid Public Opinion, and non-profit Climate Counts (which publishes an annual climate change scorecard of companies), used Climate Counts scores to represent actual efforts, and then conducted an online survey to gauge perception.

What does this all tell us? Greenwashing works? Perhaps in some cases… though a few companies (Starbucks, JP Morgan Chase, and Coca-Cola) have pretty close alignment between action and perception. But quite a few companies scoring relatively highly on actual efforts don’t do very well with perception… meaning that they may be losing green market share because they’re not communicating these actions more aggressively (and, ironically, I wouldn’t be surprised if that stems from fear of greenwashing accusations).

Thoughts on the gaps between real and perceived corporate action on climate change? Share them…

Image credit: UPS