Is This the World's Best 'Greenest Companies' List?

I'm skeptical about efforts to rank and rate green or sustainable companies, and I have been for a time. [See 100 Best Corporate Citizens? What a CROck!] It's terribly difficult to compare big and small companies, retailers with manufacturers, software firms with oil companies, etc. We once tried at FORTUNE, and gave up because we decided it couldn't be done right.

Having said that, I'm impressed with the rigor and methodology used by a Canadian magazine called Corporate Knights to produce its 8th annual list of Global 100 Most Sustainable Companies, which it calls "the most extensive data-driven corporate sustainability assessment in existence." The ratings are transparent and they encompass social as well as environmental metrics, among them energy, carbon, waste and water productivity, diversity and employee turnover, safety and, interestingly, the ratio between CEO and average worker pay -- a revealing metric that most such rankings do not include. [Disclosure: While I played no part in putting the list together, I did write a profile of Novo Nordisk, the top-ranked company, for Corporate Knights.]

A couple of things to note about the list. First, US companies perform poorly. There's not one US-based company in the top 10. Life Technologies (No. 15) is the highest ranked US-based firm, followed by Intel (18), Agilent (59), Johnson Controls (64), Procter & Gamble (66) and IBM (69). Lest you suspect a Canadian bias, our neighbors to the north did no better. The top-ranked Canadian firm was Suncor (48), which calls itself an "oil sands pioneer." Go figure.

Of the 22 countries with companies that made the list, the UK led the way with 16 Global 100 companies, followed by Japan with 11 and France and the US with eight. Northern European countries (Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden) punched above their weight, which isn't surprising.

Interestingly, these more sustainable companies have outperformed their peers. Toby Heaps, CEO of Corporate Knights, said in a news release: "In a year in which Wall Street was occupied and capitalism became a bad word, the Global 100 companies serve as ambassadors for a better, cleaner kind of capitalism which, it also turns out, is more profitable." The magazine reported:

From its inception on February 1 2005 to December 31, 2011, the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations has achieved a total return of 41.70 percent, outperforming its benchmark, (the MSCI All Country World Index at 29.30 percent) by more than 11 percent.

Next page: How Novo Nordisk reached the top