Principles to Work By

CERES and its 10 principles encourage mainstream and green businesses to do better


From botanical beauty-aids maker Aveda Corp. to Bethlehem Steel Corp., the second-largest integrated steel producer in the United States, virtually every business faces environmental challenges. It is on that principle that the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), a nonprofit organization based in Boston, exists. Pronounced "series," this ecological association guides companies of all kinds to do right by Mother Nature, serving as an ally and a facilitator in a transition to sustainable and restorative business and manufacturing practices.

Formed in 1989 in response to the Valdez oil spill, CERES was a partnership between large institutional investors and major environmental groups that promoted increased corporate environmental accountability. Soon it developed the Valdez Principles, which became the epicenter of the organization. Today, they are known as the CERES Principles and consist of 10 statements of environmental responsibility (see sidebar).

"The guidelines function as a gateway to understanding what CERES expects of its members," says Brad Sperber, director of coalition programs. "The CERES Principles serve as a feeding mechanism and are enormously helpful in building trust in companies that endorse them. It helps companies identify themselves as being serious about the CERES commitment."

The organization is made up of two levels of membership: the Endorsers and the Coalition. The Endorsers are companies that have publicly committed to the CERES Principles and use them as guidelines for conducting their businesses. Each endorsing company is required to pay yearly dues based on its annual revenues and to submit and make public an annual report that includes its environmental accomplishments.

The Coalition, which includes investment firms and environmental, community and social justice organizations, plays a larger role in the organization, serving as a virtual environmental board of directors for endorsing companies, helping them to honor their CERES commitment and attain their environmental goals. Coalition members are also required to pay yearly fees based on either their assets or annual operating budgets. Until 1992, the CERES Principles were predominantly endorsed by obviously green companies, such as Ben & Jerry's in South Burlington, Vt., and UK-based Body Shop International. Then, in 1993, Philadelphia-based Sunoco

Inc., the nation's 14th-largest oil company, became the first Fortune 500 business to adopt the CERES Principles. Since then, dozens of heavy-hitting mainstream and industrial companies have endorsed the principles, including General Motors (GM) in Detroit and Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, Pa.

Judith Mullins, director of GM's public policy center, says her company already had an environmental policy in place when in 1994 it endorsed the CERES Principles. The advantage to joining CERES, she says, was that it consolidated 30 years of policy and offered a way for GM to file its actions publicly.

"Before joining CERES, we thought we would do an environmental report, but we didn't know how or when to do it," Mullins says. "Without CERES we would have been bound to report what we thought people wanted to hear. But commitment is not about saying what you think is important but rather what the CERES external stakeholders want to know." But as most companies know, public accountability is not only good for the environment, it's good PR. To safeguard against companies hoping to score points in the public eye, Sperber says CERES has developed an evaluation process to determine a company's level of sincere commitment.

"When a company comes to us or we approach a company, we learn all about its processes and products to see if there is something we can do to help it move toward its environmental goals more quickly," Sperber explains. "We have a process in place to help us decide if a company will be a suitable partner, and our criteria is subjective rather than objective. We ask ourselves, Do we trust these people? Do they seem to believe in what they are saying? Is there management in place that will help them attain their goals?"

Although CERES often is perceived as antagonistic, Sperber says this perception is contrary to CERES' nature, which he describes as a collaboration to promote environmentalism in business.

J. Robert Banks, Sunoco's vice president of health, environment and safety, communications, and public policy, says that it's the endorsing company's commitment level, not CERES, that acts as a watchdog.

"CERES never badgers us. We've made a commitment, and we want to live up to it. The results are far more comprehensive than they would have been if we had been on our own," Banks says, adding that CERES'collaborative nature has made a positive impact on his company.

"Until we joined CERES, we incurred more confrontational types of feedback," Banks says. "But CERES provided an opportunity for collaboration and has brought the idea of collaboration into our corporate culture."

Mullins appreciates the partnership between CERES and GM but says that challenges come with any relationship.

ICERES and GM] don't always agree on everything, and the challenge is maintaining the respect and trust we have for one another," Mullins says. "When we don't agree, it doesn't weaken our relationship. Sometimes it strengthens the relationship and forces us to reach out."

As much as he values his relationship with CERES, Banks agrees that it's not always easy for a business to maintain its responsibility to that organization-especially when company revenues are down.

"During the last seven years with CERES, we have faced some difficult times in our business, and the challenge has been staying the course and living up to our commitments during hard financial times," Banks says.

Regardless, Banks adds, Sunoco's partnership with CERES has yielded "nothing but positive results."

For more information on CERES, visit www. ceres. org, or contact Brad Sperher, director of coalition programs, at 617-247-0700 or

Reduce and eliminate the release of substances that cause environmental damage to the air, water, earth or its inhabitants; safeguard habitats affected by operations, protect wilderness and open spaces, while preserving biodiversity.

Make use of renewable natural resources, such as water, soils and forests; conserve nonrenewable natural resources through efficient use and careful planning.

Reduce and eliminate waste through source reduction and recycling; handle and dispose of wastes through safe, responsible methods.

Conserve energy and improve the efficiency of internal operations and goods and services, while striving to use environmentally safe and sustainable energy sources.

Minimize the environmental, health and safety risks to employees and local communities by operating safe technologies, facilities and procedures and by being prepared for emergencies.

Reduce and eliminate the use, manufacture or sale of prod ucts/services that cause environmental damage or health or safety hazards; inform customers of environmental impacts of products or services; correct unsafe use.

Promptly correct conditions that endanger health, safety or the environment, redress injuries to persons; restore damage to the environment.

Inform in a timely manner everyone who may be affected by conditions that could endanger health, safety or the environment, seek advice through dialogue with local communities; allow employees to report dangerous conditions to management or authorities.

Implement these principles and sustain a process that ensures that the board of directors/CEO are informed about environmental issues and fully responsible for environmental policy, consider environmental commitment in selecting a board of directors.

Conduct an annual evaluation of progress in implementing the principles; support the timely creation of environmental audit procedures; annually complete the CERES Report.


Back to Top

Back to Eco-nomics Directory