The recent release of two influential reports on the state of corporate environmental performance in South Africa highlighted the tightrope the Mail & Guardian will walk when it celebrates a Decade of Greening in 2013.
On November 22 the environment department's Green Scorpions released their annual review of compliance with environmental laws, called the National Compliance and Enforcement Report.
On November 28 the Johannesburg Stock Exchange launched the 2012 Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) Index, its yearly rating of listed companies' performance in terms of environmental, social and governance policies.
The next day the Cape Town-based Centre for Environmental Rights cautioned investors that a number of companies had "the dubious distinction" of being listed both on the SRI Index and in the National Compliance and Enforcement Report. It named four companies included in the index that had also been found by the Green Scorpions to be violating environmental laws and that faced criminal investigations.
"This is the third consecutive year the centre has pointed out to the JSE that, instead of facilitating investment in responsible companies and incentivising companies to implement more responsible practices, the SRI Index rewards companies whose environmental compliance history is, at best, chequered," said the centre's director, Melissa Fourie.
Six mining companies that could have qualified as best performers on the SRI Index had been precluded due to labour unrest in the mining industry this year, but the same censure had not been applied to environmental offenders, she said. "Labour unrest in an industry can exclude companies from being considered for best performer status, [but] facing criminal prosecution for environmental violations apparently does not," Fourie said.
Corli le Roux, the JSE's head of SRI Index and sustainability, did not respond to the M&G's questions about the controversy. But Karin Ireton, director of group sustainability management at Standard Bank South Africa and who sits on the JSE advisory board, provided insight into the listing process.
"The SRI Index does not purport to be an audit but an assessment of information available in the public domain," she said. "Major transgressions resulting in convictions and charges are taken into account, and a 'conflicts' committee of independent individuals provides recommendations where such events are brought to the attention of the JSE."
A distinction had to be drawn between administrative breaches and convictions, Ireton said. "The administrative breaches are often a result of bureaucratic ineptitude and environmental directives are often successfully challenged."
Ireton is also a member of the judging panel of the annual M&G Greening the Future Awards. In 2013 the flagship will celebrate its 10th year of honouring environmental best practice illustrated by companies, organisations and individuals in southern Africa.
Other judges on the panel said the latest debate had served to highlight the fine line that has to be negotiated between green-washing and credibility. A plethora of environmental awards has been launched in recent years, but the M&G Greening the Future Awards had been distinguished over the past decade by its panel of forward-thinking, experienced individuals involved in shaping environmental sustainability.
"This is an important topic to have clarity on, since it comes up repeatedly during the evaluation process," said panel member and chief executive of Linkd Environmental Services Crispian Olver.
"An investigation is of course not necessarily a breach of the law or proof of non-compliance, so we need to be careful about jumping to premature conclusions. However, we certainly don't want to be awarding recognition to non-compliant companies and organisations."
On December 1, the day after the Centre for Environmental Rights released its cautionary announcement on the SRI Index, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg marched to the offices of four large corporations it accused of "profiting from the destruction of the planet and making South African citizens pay the bill".
Programme officer Makoma Lekalakala said: "As we are heading for between a four and six degrees temperature rise, it is high time that the corporations driving climate change are brought to book." A large South African bank targeted by Earthlife also happened to be listed this year on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which tracks the financial performance of sustainability-driven companies worldwide.
The M&G Greening the Decade plans to tackle this fine green line in 2013 with renewed vigour and a critical eye.