Activism

5 Companies That Did Something Good for the World This Year

While no company is perfect, it's good to know that at least a few for-profit entities did some good things for the environment and society this year.

Occupy Wall Street has us all thinking about the bad things companies can do - and rightly so, because often those things are very, very bad. (The 2008 financial meltdown, anyone? How about the ongoing foreclosure crisis?) But sometimes some companies take steps in a positive direction, and it's worth giving those efforts a look as well.

First, let me make one thing clear: a company's inclusion on this list does not mean it is outstanding in every facet of its business. Quite the contrary. But each of these companies has done at least some things this year that are worthy of praise.

It's also worth acknowledging that there are scores of companies that launched socially responsible initiatives in 2011, and many of them were surely commendable. But the purpose of this article isn't to pat companies on the back for giving back to the world; really, every company should be doing that, at the bare minimum. Below you'll find only companies that engaged this year in efforts that are changing - or at least have the potential to change - corporate America for the better. That's a slippery metric, no doubt, but it offers a good starting point for examining corporate social responsibility.

1. Ben & Jerry's

In October, when Occupy Wall Street was in its relative infancy, the Ben & Jerry's board of directors recognized the power of the movement, and issued a letter of support. The letter, titled "We Stand With You," read in part:

We, the Ben & Jerry's Board of Directors, compelled by our personal convictions and our Company's mission and values, wish to express our deepest admiration to all of you who have initiated the non-violent Occupy Wall Street Movement and to those around the country who have joined in solidarity. The issues raised are of fundamental importance to all of us. These include:

--The inequity that exists between classes in our country is simply immoral.

-- We are in an unemployment crisis. Almost 14 million people are unemployed. Nearly 20% of African American men are unemployed. Over 25% of our nation's youth are unemployed.

-- Many workers who have jobs have to work 2 or 3 of them just to scrape by.

-- Higher education is almost impossible to obtain without going deeply in debt.

--Corporations are permitted to spend unlimited resources to influence elections while stockpiling a trillion dollars rather than hiring people.

Ben & Jerry's is known for having maintained its social and environmental standards even after "selling out" to Unilever. But still, it was a bold move for a corporation to throw its support behind a movement that is largely defined by its anti-corporatism.

The company also gave out free ice cream to protesters in New York and D.C., where the company's founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, did a little ice cream scooping of their own.

Some protesters have expressed concerns about Ben & Jerry's co-opting the Occupy movement, and that's fair. They have reason to be skeptical. But it's noteworthy that Ben & Jerry's is the only major company to have explicitly endorsed Occupy Wall Street. In fact, it's hard to imagine another large company that would.

2. Patagonia

Outdoor gear and clothing company Patagonia made waves towards the end of 2011 when it rolled out an anti-consumerist ad campaign featuring the slogan "Don't buy this jacket."

patagonia

Introduced on Cyber Monday (the post-Thanksgiving shopping holiday), the ad campaign is tied to Patagonia's Common Threads Initiative to reduce excess consumption. The five tenets of the initiative are to:

--Reduce: make useful gear that lasts a long time

--Repair: help consumers patch up their Patagonia products

--Reuse: help shoppers find homes for gear that's no longer needed

--Recycle: take back old products that are un-fixable

--Reimagine: "reimagine a world where we take only what nature can replace"

The initiative isn't new, but the advertising tactic is - and it got a significant amount of attention. Not all of the attention was positive, but at the very least the ads sparked a conversation about consumerism.

Despite some reports to the contrary, Patagonia says it did not donate any gear to the Occupy movement; still, one has to wonder if the company's latest ad campaign was influenced by Occupy's anti-corporate message.

3. H&M

In the past, H&M has been targeted for doing a number of irresponsible things, from making "disposable" clothing to stealing designs and destroying perfectly good clothes that could have been donated to people in need. But this year the company did at least one positive thing: it announced that it would aim to procure all of its cotton from sustainable sources by 2020, which is considered an ambitious goal among major retailers.

As part of its new focus on sustainability, H&M launched its "Conscious Collection" in April. The line is available worldwide and features more environmentally friendly materials like organic cotton and recycled fibers.

Also, by the end of this year H&M will have replaced most of its hangers with multi-function hangers that are meant to reduce waste in the long term. As for the old hangers, H&M claims that 85% of them have been recycled.

These steps may be relatively modest, but they're significant within the "fast fashion" industry, which is notorious for its waste. The hope is that H&M's efforts will become the industry standard, and chains like Forever 21 and Zara will be pressured to follow suit.

4. Hewlett-Packard

HP topped Corporate Responsibility magazine's 2010 list of corporate citizens, in part because of the company's instrumental role in leading the electronics industry away from the use of so-called conflict minerals - materials mined in areas where human rights abuses are rampant.

In partnership with the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition and the Global eSustainability Initiative Extractives Group, HP has lobbied for legislation to curb the use of conflict minerals, especially from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Another result of HP's lobbying efforts is that electronics companies now must report whether their products are manufactured using conflict minerals.

HP is recognized as a leader in this realm, in part because the company chose to dig deep into the conflict minerals issue even though a company review showed that its products could not be linked directly to conflict mineral sources. HP executive Zoe McMahon told CNET last year, "Because our suppliers are not using material from the DRC, that gave us some comfort. But to this day, there is still no certification mechanism that can assure us wholeheartedly that they are not sourced from the DRC. Once metals are with smelters, it's difficult to know where the material comes from."

Although HP's conflict minerals efforts didn't start in 2011, the company did advance its agenda by participating in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Due Diligence Guidance pilot program, which is focused on ensuring "responsible supply chains of minerals from conflict-affected and high-risk areas."

5. Method

Since it was founded, Method Products has been recognized as a groundbreaking sustainable home care company. This year the popular maker of soaps and home cleaning products continued to revolutionize the way sustainable products are sold by helping them reach a broader audience - the Walmart- and Target-shopping set.

Method's popularity is thanks in large part to its marketing strategy. Rather than tout the environmental benefits of its products (of which there are many), the company focuses on "rid[ding] your home of toxic chemicals" - something people of all political persuasions can get behind, rather than just the liberal and environmentally-inclined. This strategy helped Method get its products on the shelves of major chain and grocery stores, thus helping bring sustainable products to many more consumers. And unlike Seventh Generation, Method's leaders so far appear to remain committed to the company's sustainability goals.

Now this is kind of cheating, because this product was launched in 2010, not 2011, but Method's super-concentrated laundry detergent continued to have a positive impact on the detergent industry this year. While other companies have been filling shelves with 2x concentrated detergents (which are better for the environment and consumers than non-concentrated detergent), Method went six steps further, releasing an 8x concentrated detergent. As Fast Company notes, the product may be "the greenest laundry detergent to ever hit store shelves," and the only reason other companies haven't followed suit is because they're focused on selling consumers more product - not doing what's best for the environment.

While no company is perfect, it's good to know that at least a few for-profit entities did some good things for the environment and society this year. May we see broader leaps in the new year.

Lauren Kelley is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to Change.org, The L Magazine and Time Out New York. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter here.