Admiration Earned

05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fortune magazine released its annual list of the "World's Most Admired Companies" this week, and it's hard to say which is more incredible: some of the companies that made the list or those you won't find anywhere on it.

The ranking, which is based on a survey of business people and not the general public, contains too many firms who have littered the road to their success with significant environmental wreckage, serious labor abuses, and other unsustainable practices. Missing in action are most of the companies currently doing the heavy lifting on the cutting edge of responsible and sustainable corporate behavior--in other words, those that actually deserve admiration.

Instead, the survey's respondents seem to have largely reserved their praise for companies with relatively low negative public relations profiles and impressively high profitability. (In the few cases where controversy dogs a company on the list, outsized earnings appear to more than compensate for any inconvenient truths that may be involved.) Making fistfuls of money without making much noise, it seems, is what generates applause, and admiration in the corporate community is apparently not so much about acknowledging worthy behavior as it is about toasting business-as-usual.

Ironically, there's certainly nothing to admire about that. So what companies should have made the list had respondents had a more meaningful bottom line in mind? In exploring the next generation of responsible corporations with co-author Bill Breen for our new book, The Responsibility Revolution, I found quite a few that together make a much better list and offer much to legitimately admire.

There is, for example, dairy products company Organic Valley, which has made the preservation of sustainable family farms the centerpiece of its work and bends over backwards to provide its small-scale suppliers with a fair and stable price for their milk.

There is British retailing giant Spencer & Marks, which has not only adopted a breathtakingly ambitious social and environmental agenda, but actually takes transparency to a new level by continually broadcasting its progress on each of dozens of goals on a giant electronic ticker at company headquarters.

Then there is Linden Labs, which is creating a new healthier and happier kind of workplace with tools like the Love Machine, which lets employees send quick Twitter-like notes of appreciation to one another for jobs well done, and the Rewarder, a clever bonus system in which all employees are given an equal percentage of the company's net profits that they must then redistribute themselves to those they believe did the most to help the company in the previous quarter.

Companies like these should be the real sources of our admiration. They're doing the innovating that matters and taking the risks that deliver truer rewards. After all, it's easy to do what's already been done, and in most cases there's nothing remarkable about it. What's admirable is going where no one has gone before and returning with something that enriches us all. That's the kind of business model we should stand up and salute, and in the new world that's coming, it will be.