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There are lists. And then there are lists of lists!

Here are some of my favorites from the closing days of 2012. Some surprising, all worthy.

Andrew Winston’s Top 10 Sustainable Business Stories of 2012

Marc Gunther’s green business heroes of 2012

My Top 10 Sustainable Business Stories of 2012

Joel Makower’s 15 encouraging developments(“2012 was the year that…”)

Susan McPherson’s 10 Most Dynamic Social Innovation Initiatives of 2012

Anese Cavanaugh’s 4 Internally Driven Secrets to Leading Your Best For Others

David Wong’s 6 harsh truths that will make you a better person

Rajesh Setty’s 17 Point Program to Have the Best Year of Your Life

And a partridge in a pear tree.

Happy new year, good people. Let’s make it a great one. See you next year!

La lutte continue. Without context, numbers are just data. With context, they have a chance of being information.

I fondly remember a talk by then EPA Administrator Steven Johnson some years ago. Last year, he bragged from the podium, we recycled 600,000 tons (or some large number) of municipal solid waste. He beamed. I fretted. Was that a lot, or a little? Don’t know. Was it better than last year, or worse? Don’t know. Have we learned anything. Clearly not. Accurate data that’s absolutely useless. It’s everywhere.

Same problem with graphs in newspapers — even the venerable NY Times. You’ve seen it: a view of the top of a tall column chart, with the context of the full chart, so a 1% change looks like a 60% change. Sure, the detail’s there in the legend for those who look, but who looks?

(I laid out some of the principles in 2008 1998 in Environmental Quality Management: EcoMetrics: Integrating direct and indirect environmental costs and benefits into management information systems [924k PDF] and explored their application in 2004: Key sustainability KPIs: The simple, the sobering, the significant.)

Prompted by Sprint vs. AT&T: Dialing up the metrics that matter by Marc Gunther, and an ongoing conversation about “sustainability context” with Bill Baue, Mark McElroy, Allen White and others.

In his latest blog post, veteran journalist Marc Gunther asks Have I fallen in love with Walmart? It’s a long, thougthtful piece, responding to an even longer piece in Grist.
“I’ve written dozens of stories about the retail giant, Gunther writes. “…I’ve been critical at times…but most of my coverage of the company’s sustainability effort has been laundatory [sic].”

Now here comes Stacy Mitchell, a smart reporter, with a six-part series in Grist called Walmart’s Greenwash: Why the retail giant is still unsustainable. She assails Walmart for promoting suburban sprawl, making only token efforts to buy renewable energy and selling cheap throwaway stuff. She also faults mainstream environmental groups for focusing “on the small bits of good that Walmart could do—reduce PVC in packaging, for example—while ignoring the much larger consequences of its ever-expanding business model.” She also says that she has been “shocked by just how much of a public relations boost the media have given the company and how little public accountability they have demanded in return.”

Here’s the comment I posted at Marc’s site:

Thanks for this piece, Marc, and the thoughtful perspective. WalMart’s a mixed bag, to be sure (ain’t we all!), but it’s just way too easy to criticize, and damn hard to transform a large organization, and to get everything right. (Once again, who of any of us has?)
I completely agree with you re “The Sustainability Index” — WalMart’s “100% renewable energy/zero waste/only sustainable products” declaration has probably generated more sustainability awareness in businesses around the country than any single from regulators or NGOs. We’ve seen an immediate and profound impact on the flow of companies that come to us at Natural Logic, and the kind of assistance they’re looking for. WalMart deserves ample credit for moving the agenda at tens of thousands of companies.
But I strongly disagree with you about “Cheap Stuff.” As Dave Gustershaw of Interface is fond of pointing out, each additional kilogram of stuff moved an additional kilometer means (all things being equal) more environmental impact, so the challenge of “sustainable consumption” — and the related challenge of “how can companies make more money selling less stuff?” — are on a very short list of questions at the heart of the matter. (The others: getting the prices right, and escaping the trap of short-term-ism — but more on those another time.) I just don’t buy it when companies say “we’re just responding to consumer demand” and then spend billions to _shape_ that consumer demand.
By the way, why would buying solar “put the company at a competitive disadvantage” when it doesn’t do that for “Kohl’s, Whole Foods Markets, Starbucks and Staples”?
PS: WalMart isn’t us. The “us” who shop there (or don’t) do have substantial impact on what they do, and yes, markets do move business decisions, but it feels just a wee bit too simplistic, in these days of TARP x 11, to suggest that “we’re all one.”