WITH all due fanfare, on September 10th last year Dow Jones, a financial-news provider, declared Volkswagen to be the world’s most sustainable carmaker in its flagship sustainability index. Just weeks later it removed the firm. The news that 11m of VW’s diesel vehicles had been fitted with software to cheat emissions tests somewhat dented its credentials—and that of corporate sustainability itself.

After a couple of decades of worthy initiatives, acting to implement sustainable practices in a meaningful way is still far harder than gushing about it. “Sustainability is just being slightly less awful,” admits Chris Davis, who keeps the Body Shop, a cosmetics firm, on the right side of greenery. The hardest part is still getting businesspeople to understand that sustainability is not just a cost or a constraint, says Philippe Joubert, formerly an executive at Alstom, a French engineering firm, and now a sustainability adviser.

No accepted steps exist for going green, so sustainable approaches often end up bogged down in endless questionnaires and targets. And a lack of standard practices gives some firms leeway to cut corners. One dodge...Continue reading