Amazon’s a great company. But good? Nope.

amazon-logoLike millions of people, I like to shop at Amazon. But the more I learn about the company, the less I like it.

Amazon’s  performance on environmental and social issues has been truly dismal, as a I wrote in a story posted today on Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how the story begins:

Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric and one of American’s most influential business leaders, likes to say that “if you want to be a great company today, you also have to be a good company.”

Another celebrated chief executive named Jeff — Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO– is putting that proposition to the test.

Amazon is, in many ways, a great company. But good? Nope.

Amazon doesn’t publish a sustainability report, probably because it would have little to say. It doesn’t respond to the Carbon Disclosure Project. (More than 80% of big companies do.) It’s ranked very low by Climate Counts, which rates companies on their efforts to mitigate climate change. Amazon’s  data centers get low marks from Greenpeace.

Nor does Amazon do well on social and political issues. Until Bezos agreed to install electricity last year, warehouse workers literally toiled in sweatshops where the temperatures could top 90 degrees. The company has fiercely fought efforts by states to collect sales taxes, using bullying tactics at times. If you believe the Seattle Times, and I do, the company gives less to charities than other Seattle companies and “cuts an astoundingly low profile in the civic life of its hometown.” For more, read the rest of the Guardian story. [click to continue...]

Toyota: Streamlining nonprofits

Any company can give away money. Most don’t do it very well.

It’s harder, smarter and ultimately more valuable for companies to share their talent and expertise.

That’s what Toyota is doing with a program, announced today at the Clinton Global Initiative in Chicago, aimed at helping schools, hospitals and other nonprofits stretch their dollars further.

Toyota is famous for its lean, worker-friendly approach to manufacturing. Its Toyota Production System isn’t so much about efficiency–although that’s the end result–as it is about respecting workers, letting ideas bubble up from the shop floor and driving continuous improvement, or Kaizen. The Toyota system is “at its core a problem-solving method,” says Jim Wiseman, a group vice president and company spokesman who’s been with Toyota for 22 years.

Toyota will now share its expertise more widely. In a news release, the company says:

The company will be working with up to 20 community organizations across the United States in the first year to help improve performance, beginning with the St. Bernard Project, a New Orleans recovery organization that employs returning war veterans, AmeriCorps members and volunteers to rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Techniques pioneered on Toyota assembly lines have already helped local non-profits, mostly on an ad hoc basis. [click to continue...]

How GE gives away money

The easy way to do corporate philanthropy is to write a little check to everyone who asks. Many companies operate this way–$5,000 to the Boy’s Club, $5,000 to the YMCA, $5,000 to the local cancer society or heart association. This is mostly a feel-good exercise, performed, it must be said, with other people’s money.

Today’s Sustainability column at fortune.com and cnnmoney.com is about GE, and the company efforts to be strategic in its corporate giving. I met Bob Corcoran, who runs the GE Foundation, on a trip to Ghana in 2004, and had a chance to see GE’s health care initiative in action there—the company donated medical equipment, a generator, money and lots of expertise to a hospital in rural Ghana. Last week, Bob and I had a chance to catch up when he was in Washington.

Here’s how the column begins:

I’m not a big fan of corporate philanthropy. Too often, it’s a feel-good exercise, generating little value for a company’s shareholders. At its worst, it allows CEOs to use other people’s money to glorify themselves. (Tyco once pledged $5 million to Seton Hall University, which named a building or two after its then-CEO, Dennis Kozlowski.) Rarely is corporate giving both benevolent and strategic.

General Electric (GE, Fortune 500) is one company that does philanthropy right. On Monday, the company announced a new donation – a five-year $18 million grant from the GE Foundation to the New York City public schools, the largest-ever single corporate contribution to the school system. New York is the sixth city to join in what GE calls its “Developing Futures” program, which is aimed at improving schools in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Louisville, Stamford, CT and Erie, PA, all places where GE operates. GE has been working on school reform for decades.

The company’s other charitable focus – health care in poor countries – is newer. I had a chance to see it up close in 2004 when I traveled to Ghana, with Bob Corcoran, GE’s vice president for corporate citizenship and president of the GE Foundation. (See Money and Morals at GE in the Fortune archive.) Back then, GE had promised to donate $20 million of equipment and to lend its expertise to public hospitals and clinics in Africa, beginning in Ghana – a country where it does no business. Corcoran and GE’s CEO, Jeff Immelt, justified the Africa initiative in several ways: They told me the company had been asked to do more in Africa by its African-American employees, that GE wanted to develop good will in a region that soon could grow into a real market, and that knowledge gained from working in poor countries might pay off in unexpected ways for GE.

You can read the rest here.