More companies are aggressively pursuing what they describe as more attention to corporate social responsibility (CSR) for a bevy of reasons. More evidence suggests that a bolder CSR agenda can improve a company’s brand reputation and even boost its stock price. There is also the awareness that consumers are more discerning about the companies from which they buy goods and services. The result, of course, is that more companies, often guided by their external public relations consultants, are also more aggressive in building a perception than actually delivering on performance.

Therefore, a recent report on CSR rankings, recently released by the Reputation Institute, offers some compelling insights and plenty of room for debate. Like many rankings — all of which are open to interpretation — this report should spark discussion of who is on it as much as who is omitted or ranked toward the bottom 100. The top 10 is full of surprises, starting with the No. 1 company, Amazon.

Amazon’s position at the top of this listing will certainly raise eyebrows considering the company’s longstanding reputation as an opaque carbon emitter and this summer’s New York Times’ article on its alleged “bruising” work environment. But the online retail giant, which also has a sterling reputation for developing its (non-warehouse) employees, is now dabbling in clean energy. And let’s face it: The company has an ingenious business model that no one else out there has been able to come close to replicating.

So, it is important to keep in mind that this particular report is based on questions asked to the general public: 55,000 ratings during the first quarter of this year, according to Reputation Institute. The questions were centered on “trust, admiration and respect, good feeling, and overall esteem.” If a consumer knows his or her Amazon package consistently arrives with minimal hassle, those emotions toward the company will naturally rank high. Those scores remained high, in fact, even after the fallout that resulted from the Times article.

Meanwhile, Subway’s CSR reputation, according to the survey, took a nosedive due to the public relations hit it took after its spokesperson, Jared Fogle, was arrested on child pornography and prostitution charges. Lurid as those details were, that episode should hardly reflect on the company’s performance, whether one’s feelings about that company hovered in positive or negative territory.

So overall, the volume of questions asked is impressive and is a data mine for marketers. But when it comes to substance, this report is wanting, as in the assessment of Subway. After all, one or two bad, even hideous, sub-human apples at Subway has no bearing on how the company treats and pays its employees, sources its ingredients or works with its franchisees to improve its social performance.

And that is what makes Reputation Institute’s data stand out, as well as raise questions about the direction in which corporate social responsibility wants to go. Is this a movement that is truly about helping companies clean up their act when it comes to people in the planet, or one more concerned with good storytelling?

The value in Reputation Institute’s survey, however, is where perception and reality align. For example, many CSR advocates would agree with the high rankings of Levi Strauss and Panera Bread. UPS, Harley-Davidson, Campbell Soup Company and FedEx, firms that are also frequency mentioned in the CSR and sustainability space,  also appear in the top 25 of this listing. Yet other companies that have long been actively engaged in social and environmental responsibility, but are not necessarily well known by the public, rank relatively low. SAP and Unilever (which is less well-known here in the U.S. than abroad) are a couple companies that come to mind when combing through this report.

Reputation Institute is correct in stating that “reputation is an emotional bond” that engenders consumer loyalty and respect. Nevertheless, a track record is also important, and that is where this report could use more heft. Would these scores have been the same if survey participants had known about some of the well-documented actions of some of these highly ranked companies? While it is important to know what is important to consumers as they decide what comprises a responsible company, it is also important to hold companies accountable. Surveys such as those completed by Reputation Institute risk coming across as little more than popularity contests—and give companies more cover to engage in actions most of us would characterize as far from responsible.

Image credit: Reputation Institute

Published earlier today on Triple Pundit.

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. Based in California, he specializes in social media consulting and strategic communications. A journalist and writer since 2009, his work has appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Areas of interest include the <a Middle East, sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (Leon Kaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). Since 2013, he has spent much of his time in Abu Dhabi, UAE, working with Masdar, the emirate's renewable energy company. He lives in Fresno, California.