Just a few weeks later, I mentioned the rankings while addressing a course at Insead, the leading European business school. I asked whether they might herald the next big shift in the environmental challenge facing business, towards growing competition for capital on the basis of the real - and perceived - environmental performance of companies and industry sectors. A German executive promptly recalled that his company's president had appeared carrying that issue of Fortune a few days after publication, saying he was extremely worried and demanding a briefing on what the implications might be.
In the midst of the worst international recession since 1945, it is hardly surprising that most companies missed the significance of the Fortune survey, but the magazine itself underscored the dramatic shift in business thinking on environmental issues. It said: 'When Americans first demanded a clean-up of the environment during the early 1970s, corporations threw a tantrum. Their response ran the psychological gamut from denial to hostility, defiance, obstinacy, and fear. But today, when it comes to green issues, many US companies have turned from rebellious under-achievers to active problem-solvers.'
Business people wanting to learn about the environmental agenda, or devour case studies of how other companies have responded, are better served today than they were even a few years ago. The green business bookshelf expands apace, with two of the most recent offerings - Malcolm Wheatley's Green Business and Michael J Gilbert's Achieving Environmental Management Standards - part of a new series commissioned by the Institute of Management and published by Pitman.
I would expect aspiring green business executives to find the latter most helpful. Seconded by IBM UK to the British Standards Institution to help develop the new BSI environmental management standard, Gilbert has distilled his experience into a well-structured, highly accessible handbook, subtitled 'A Step-by-Step Guide to Meeting BS7750'.
Malcolm Wheatley's book, which kicks off with a foreword from Martin Laing, chairman of John Laing and of the World Wide Fund for Nature, is endorsed by WWF. Sadly, appearing in the wake of a surfeit of similar titles, the book will not stand out from the crowd. However, it does provide useful insights into the emerging sustainable development agenda for business and some basic steps companies can take in response. The book, which has a surprisingly poor 'further contacts' section, would have benefited from the inclusion of company case studies, perhaps giving the 'secret history' of some of the relationships WWF itself has developed with corporate partners. What were the benefits, the pitfalls and the lessons for others? A missed opportunity.
Gilbert's book more or less takes the business case for environmental management systems as read, but if I had to recommend just one of these books for UK companies or other organisations wanting to think through, plan, implement and measure change in this area, this would be the one. My main concern with the Gilbert book relates to the BS7750 standard itself.
Some companies have slowed the pace of their environmental programmes, using the excuse that they were waiting for the final standard to be issued. More worrying still, BS7750 is designed to build on industry's experience with TQM (total quality management) - and specifically with BSI's quality standard, BS5750. When you review the experience of UK companies to date in implementing BS5750, you discover that there has been a frighteningly high failure rate. In the United States, TQM is sometimes called 'totalled quality management', because of the number of corporate wrecks it has left in its wake.
If the goal of BS7750 is simply to ensure that companies go through the motions of setting up environmental management systems, then only a fool would doubt that the BSI standard will be widely adopted, particularly as big trade and industry customers begin to demand that their suppliers comply with BS7750. But if the goal is real environmental progress, then the jury must remain out.
A final thought: If you buy either book as part of a campaign to persuade the board or senior management of your own company that this is an area where there will be real winners and real losers, attach a copy of the Fortune survey. And recognise that the task is going to require some fairly fundamental re-engineering not only of companies but also of the mind-sets of business leaders.
Fortune concluded by noting that the chief executives of the 50 US companies emitting the most pollutants live in postal areas where releases of toxic chemicals are either zero or a fraction of those in areas where their plants are located. Maybe the best solution would be to insist that they lived, at least for a while, cheek-by-jowl with their own plants.