Exxon, VW and beyond: The sustainable business turkeys of 2015

Exxon, VW and beyond: The sustainable business turkeys of 2015

sustainability turkeys 2015
A look at the companies who ran afoul of their sustainability claims this year.

Another year, another class of corporations cutting corners when it comes to their impact on the environment and society at large.

Amid a spike in corporate clean energy investment and pre-COP21 climate commitments, carbon regulations, labor abuses and supply chain failures also have reared their head.

Volkswagen — the world's largest automaker, and a company lauded for its sustainability efforts — set an extremely high (low?) bar for corporate malfeasance with its ever-widening emissions cheating scandal.

Right on par, however, were the oil companies sniffing out ill-advised drilling prospects and getting busted for decades-long cover ups of internal research into the potential havoc that climate change could wreak.

Beyond the bleakest of those headlines, deeper issues with corporate sustainability also persist.

While individual companies often provide colorful anecdotes, it's worth noting several simmering sustainability issues impacting a range of companies, such as emissions-spewing fires started in pursuit of palm oil profits in Indonesia, ongoing struggles with mining and garment supply chains or forced labor in food production.

More specifically, scandals such as the Volkswagen affair also highlight the potential pitfalls of voluntary reporting systems relying on company-supplied data. Business deals in and of themselves also have lifted the veil on occasion, as when a closer look at the food industry mega-merger between Kraft and Heinz revealed a pattern of slippery environmental goals with shifting deadlines.

In honor of the Thanksgiving holiday this week, GreenBiz has compiled an anti-highlight reel of five turkeys who dominated the bad news in sustainable business during the last year.

Who else should make the list? Let us know in the comments below.

Volkswagen (and Audi and Porsche) cheat on carbon

It's hard to plead ignorance when your country is reaping the branding benefits of being best-in-class for sustainability while intentionally manipulating performance on mandatory environmental product testing. Yet that's exactly what German auto giant Volkswagen AG did with a "defeat device" installed in millions of diesel-powered vehicles.

Two other well-known auto brands owned by Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche, also have been implicated by the Environmental Protection Agency, making it unclear how much the ordeal could end up costing the company.

Exxon Mobil caught in climate cover-up

While the Volkswagen scandal spans several years, dating back to cars hitting the road in 2008, the $340-billion oil giant Exxon Mobil set an even bleaker record for a long-term cover up of environmental damage when it was revealed that state investigators are looking into whether the company lied to investors about the link between its products and climate change.

Other fossil fuel companies, such as Peabody Energy in the coal industry, are also under the miscroscope for how they have or haven't adapted their businesses to internal research on the detrimental environmental impacts of carbon emissions.

Shell sets sail for the Arctic

In the category of more-than-dubious decision making at oil companies, few could forget Royal Dutch Shell's defiant attempts to set up an offshore drilling operation in the Arctic, pouring $7 billion into the ill-fated effort.

While we're at it, throw BP into the mix of oil titans finding ever-more ways to wring money out of environmental destruction. The British company with a market cap of more than $101 billion is poised to claim a $5 billion tax deduction on its settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Yum Brands scrambles on supply chain in China

Sustainable supply chains have become a buzzy topic in the world of green business, and fast food conglomerate Yum Brands' travails in China help show why.

The parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell struggled to come to terms with the fallout from multiple food sourcing scandals in China during recent years, including getting caught selling tainted meat in 2014. This year, in a nod to the fact that reining in such issues is no easy task, Yum announced that it would spin its Chinese holdings off into a separate company.

Subaru hits a labor roadblock

Sticking with supply chains, the Japanese automaker known for churning out affordable outdoorsy cars, Subaru, was the subject of a major expose this year on the role that marginalized migrant workers play in building those cars.

Low wages, vulnerable immigration situations and a lack of political or economic power all remain much bigger supply chain risks for large companies in sectors ranging from automotive to apparel to electronics.