Climbing the ladder. Photo: iStockphoto

Stepping back for a second from the fact that they all churn out unhealthy food and are a general blight upon society, which fast-food joint has the most cred on climate change — Burger King? McDonalds? Wendy’s?

A new scorecard issued Tuesday ranks corporations on their commitment to reducing their contribution to global warming, giving consumers an easy, go-to guide on how to spend their bucks with businesses that are trying to do the right thing. Nike or Adidas? Google or Yahoo? Well, it’s a complicated question, but the folks at the new nonprofit Climate Counts have broken it down to a simple rating system that shoppers can take into account as they make purchasing decisions.

“We’ve been hearing that the vast majority of Americans would like to make the green choice, would like to vote with their dollars for environmental improvement, but they don’t know how to do that,” said Joel Makower, executive editor of Greener World Media and a member of the Climate Counts board, at a press conference announcing the new scorecard. “That’s been very frustrating, and what’s more, they’re kind of cynical about what companies are doing or what they say they are doing because there are no standards and there’s never been an official way to measure that.”

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The scorecard offers consumers just that by ranking 56 major corporations from a range of industries based on what they’re doing — or not doing — to address climate change. The scores are on a 100-point scale based on four different areas: whether the company has reviewed its own impact, what it’s done and what it is planning to do to reduce that impact, whether it has publicly reported both its impact and its reduction plan, and whether it has been active in public policy on climate change.

None of the corporations ranked in the scorecard achieved a perfect score, and only four even earned about a 70: Unilever, I.B.M., Canon, and Nike. Sixteen companies scored under 10 points, and six companies scored a flat zero, including both Burger King and Wendy’s, making McDonald’s the default winner of that showdown despite its score of a mere 22 points.

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“I think that if the 16 companies that scored under 10 points use this news today to take the first steps toward finding out the facts and making a clear public commitment to fighting climate change, we as an organization have done our job, and I will be really pleased,” said Wood Turner, project director for Climate Counts.

The scorecard also comes in a downloadable pocket version [PDF] that consumers can carry in their wallets to consult while cruising the mall. Climate Counts has even set up a service so shoppers can use wireless devices to text in the name of a company and get its score instantaneously.

Climate Counts is the brainchild of Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of Stonyfield Farm and founder of O’Naturals, the fledgling organic fast-food chain. An environmentalist who fell into business almost by accident, Hirshberg said that the scorecard seemed like a simple way to educate consumers who can in turn push businesses to improve their environmental records.

“Our objective is to stimulate business to make climate a priority. We’re not going to consume our way to a healthy planet, but given that we are a consumer culture, this is the pathway that is available to us,” said Hirshberg. “I don’t expect consumers to change their fast-food choice immediately or the shoe brand they buy or the type of electronics company they support immediately because of the score,” he continued. “But I do expect consumers to let companies know they are watching, and they are interested.”

Hirshberg’s own Stonyfield Farm — which provided the seed money to get Climate Counts up and running — achieved only a 63 on the scale, and its corporate parent, Groupe Danone, got an unimpressive 50. Hirshberg said these results made it all the more clear to him why businesses and consumers need this sort of clear system for examining their actions.

“I knew that we would not get a 100 or even a 90; I assumed we would be in the 70 to 75 range. The fact that we fell a few points below that was a surprise, but a positive one. It’s really mobilized us,” he said. “It increases my appreciation of the veracity and effectiveness of the scorecard.”

And the whole point of the scoring, said both Hirshberg and Turner, is to push businesses to do better over the course of the next year to improve their scores. The scorecard also gives consumers a good reason to call or write to the businesses that are sucking wind to tell them to get their acts together.

“I don’t fault companies that start with a low number, but I sure as heck will fault them if six months from now, after this gets out there and publicized, they haven’t done anything,” said Hirshberg. “The gloves will come off in the next round.”