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The Truth about Eco-Friendly Brands

IF YOU care about the environment, you may want to show that in the way you spend your money. Maybe you shop at an organic food store rather than a conventional supermarket. You probably look at energy efficiency labels before buying a new laptop. And if you're really serious, you may even be concentrating your nest egg into "green" investment funds.

All of these decisions could help steer us towards a truly green economy - but only if consumers and investors have a good idea of which companies have genuinely minimised their impact on the environment. Do the corporations that benefit from our environmentally conscious purchasing and investment choices deserve their green halo?

To find out, New Scientist teamed up with two companies that have collected the most relevant data. Earthsense, based in Syracuse, New York, has polled US consumers on their perceptions of the "greenness" of various companies. Trucost, headquartered in London, has compiled an unparalleled quantitative assessment of companies' global environmental impact (see interactive graphic, and "How we crunched the numbers").

Bringing these two sets of information together shows just how confused ordinary people are about companies' green credentials. Overall, there was no correlation between the Earthsense and Trucost scores, suggesting that US consumers have little idea about companies' environmental performance relative to each other. And looking within industrial sectors, the only hint of accurate consumer awareness came for technology companies (see "Geeks, gadgets and the environment").

In some cases there were dramatic mismatches between perceptions and reality. Take media firm Discovery Communications: its environmental impact, per dollar earned, is almost indistinguishable from TV and movie giant Viacom. Yet Discovery has a stellar green reputation that Viacom does not enjoy - which could be due to Discovery's content, which includes Animal Planet TV and websites such as TreeHugger.

Some of the greatest confusion surrounds the food and beverage sector. Of the 115 firms we analysed, producers of food and drinks stood out as having the highest environmental impact - significantly different from media firms, retailers, technology companies and manufacturers of personal and household goods. Yet there were no significant differences in consumer perceptions between the sectors. In general, US consumers fail to recognise the high environmental costs associated with agriculture and food processing.

When it comes to perception, one company's high score truly stands out: Whole Foods Market, which operates more than 270 stores, mostly in the US. As a purveyor of "natural and organic produce", everything about Whole Foods shouts green. In addition to its overall branding, the company has taken steps to reinforce its environmental credentials, including improving the efficiency of its refrigerators and reducing packaging. But Trucost's modelling rates Whole Foods no better than conventional supermarkets such as Safeway.