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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : July/Aug 2003 : Cover Story

Cover Story

By Penny Bonda and Katie Sosnowchik
Cover and Portrait Photography By Jim Robinette

More Cover Story Articles

Ben & Jerry's: The Commitment Lives On
Chiquita: Adapting to a Changing World

They couldn’t be more different.
Ben & Jerry’s is the quintessential do-gooder corporation founded by two school chums in a renovated gas station in Vermont that has captured the environmental mantle in the food industry. Chiquita Brands, a huge multi-national corporation, has had a long and sometimes unsavory history that includes accusations of unfair labor practices and bankruptcy.
Aside from producing two of the world’s favorite foods—ice cream and bananas, which just happen to work well together—they are seemingly poles apart in every way. How is it then that these two ended up as co-winners of an award for sustainability reporting?

In November 2002, the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) initiated their awards for sustainability reporting in the U.S. The program’s goal was to reward transparency; completeness, credibility and communication were the core of the judging criteria. Nineteen companies submitted sustainability, environmental and social reports and, at the end of the day, the judges selected the Ben & Jerry’s and Chiquita entries, though very different in style and approach, as most credible and worthy of winning the Outstanding Sustainability Reporting Award.

Both CERES and ACCA have a long history of promoting accountability as a corporate governance issue through each organization’s work on the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Companies that have signed on as signatories to the CERES principles have been obligated since 1992 to complete an annual report, and ACCA has promoted transparency for over a decade in many countries in Europe, Africa and the Asia Pacific region. It has always stood for and promoted the highest levels of accountability within the accountancy profession, but had not made sought-after inroads into North America. For its part, CERES recognized that U.S. corporations have not embraced GRI as robustly as in other countries. Each organization found the other to be a good fit, a partnership was born and the 2002 competition was launched.

One of the ways to draw attention to quality disclosure and transparency among companies is to reward good behavior. Encouraging better reporting and providing guidance to others are among the aim of these awards. The judges were also cognizant of the messages they were sending: sustainability reporting is not a reflection of company size or name recognition. “We weren’t just going for the Fortune 500 companies, nor were we looking at the little companies that can, in a sense, afford to do things in a different way than a great big enterprise could,” said Julie Fox Gorte of the Calvert Asset Management Co. and a CERES board member. “We wanted to make sure that everybody understands that there’s a way to be sustainable, no matter how big or how small or what business you’re in.”

Another of the judges, Joseph Uehlein of the AFL-CIO and also a member of the CERES board, had a particular challenge. He had, for years, been helping human rights groups target Chiquita to improve its corporate behavior vis-à-vis workers; consequently he approached the Chiquita report with quite a bit of skepticism. “I read the report and was amazed,” he remembers. After verifying its credibility, he now admits that the company has changed. “It’s equally important that we reward and recognize corporations that improve,” he believes. “If we don’t do that I think we’re missing part of the incentive for corporations to clean up their act. This company clearly did, and made quantum leaps. I argued strongly for Chiquita to get an award.”

Gorte positioned it this way. “One of the things we’re trying to say is, ‘It ain’t much of a church if you don’t invite in the sinners.’ These two companies—one that everybody thinks is good and one that everybody thinks is bad—really stood out as having the best sustainability reporting.” Whereas Ben & Jerry’s was commended for continuing to set an example of impressive reporting, the judges recognized Chiquita for its pioneering efforts by a relatively new reporter.

Intrigued by this “banana split,” green@work interviewed both the CEO and the individual within each company most responsible for producing their reports in order to gain insights on how two very different companies—Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader as Gorte characterized them—ended up on the same pedestal. The contrast is pronounced in every area but one—through their transparency they are contributing to the advancement of best practices for all of corporate America.

Ben & Jerry's...

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