The Multinational Monitor

December 1988 - VOLUME 9 - NUMBER 12

T H E    F R O N T

Ethical Consumption

HELPING CONSUMERS FIND companies that share their environmental, social and political concerns is difficult. But Co-op America is making the job easier. The 32,000 member organization has provided socially-conscious consumers with a marketplace responsive to their needs and their beliefs since 1982. But the group is not trying to establish a "counterculture" economy. To the contrary, it hopes to bring America's business establishment into line with its progressive philosophy by showing that it is profitable. "We are trying to change the way America does business," says Cindy Mitlo-Shartel, Co-op America marketing coordinator. "We try to support organizations ... that have some sort of cause beyond just their bottom line worked into their business. At the same time, we know that there are hundreds of thousands, hopefully millions of people who are very socially conscious. And what we're saying is that there is another way they can work for those values, and that's by the money they spend every day."

Co-op America offers natural fiber clothes, furniture and other products through its twice-yearly catalogues, as well as life insurance and travel services. In addition, the group publishes a quarterly magazine on socially-responsible investing, "Building Economic Alternatives." The magazine features profiles of investment funds and socially-conscious financial institutions, guides to help consumers determine their investment needs and a section called "Boycott Box," which provides an overview of new and ongoing corporate responsibility actions. Each summer a special edition of the magazine includes a directory of the organizational members of Co-op America, indexed by state, product and service, "so that members can find what they are looking for," Mitlo-Shartel says. Any organization seeking to join Co-op America--and gain access to its 32,000 members--must answer a detailed questionnaire about the structure, goals and products of the group, Mitlo- Shartel says. Two board members must approve the addition of the organization. The process helps Co-op America meet its goal of promoting only low-cost, socially-responsible vendors to its individual members.

There have been mistakes in the past, or at least differences of political opinion. One catalogue, for example, offered a leather backpack. Inclusion of leather products infuriated animal rights activists, and the backpack was removed from future catalogues. Another time several people complained that wood products in the catalogue were made from rainforest trees. An investigation convinced Co-op America that the products were free of wood from the endangered rainforests. The point, says Mitlo-Shartel, is that Co-op America will always research a consumer complaint, and real action is taken when a problem is confirmed.

The group also serves as a network for other progressive organizations, sharing information among its members on services and products. Magazine subscriptions are available through the Co-op America catalogues, as are books and even other catalogues.

-Louis Nemeth

Shopping for Better World

MERGER MANIA HAS gripped the food industry like no other. It might be simple to look at the label on a box of Grape Nuts to determine if the cereal is wholesome and natural, but, with food manufacturers being swallowed like so many frozen dinners, how can consumers find out if the company behind the package is as pristine?

A new guide from the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP) may help. "Shopping for a Better World" rates 138 companies and some 1,300 brand name products commonly found in supermarkets, health food stores and gas stations on 10 social criteria, all in a pocket-sized booklet. The ratings in the guide are based on information compiled from a 26-page questionnaire mailed to the companies included in the booklet, existing public information and a team of advisors. "While all of us have personal values that influence our shopping decisions, the guide helps us by presenting some clear choices," says CEP Executive Director Alice Tepper Marlin. For some products, she notes, consumers automatically take into account such things as price, quality and nutritional content. But for many products, a strong preference may not exist, in which case the information in the guide "will help consumers become more responsible shoppers."

Scoring high in the 128-page booklet are Quaker Oats cereal, Kodak film, Campbell's Soup and Cheer. Notable for low ratings are Miles Laboratories (Alka-Seltzer and SOS steel wool); Unilever (Aim Toothpaste, Ragu spaghetti sauce, Q-Tips) and American Cyanamid (Old Spice and Pine-Sol). The criteria included in the guide are: charitable giving; women's advancement; minority advancement; defense contracts; animal testing; corporate disclosure of information; nuclear power; South Africa; the environment; and community outreach.

Consumers can use the guide to selectively screen their purchases for any or all of the criteria. At a glance, a shopper can tell if a company has a good environmental record, maintains ties to South Africa, or is involved in the production of nuclear weapons.

-Louis Nemeth "Shopping for a Better World" is available for $4.95, plus $1 postage from CEP, 30 Irving Place, NY, NY 10003