How to find clues about a company's policies

Consumer groups can tell you where to buy the best vacuum cleaner. Environmental groups rate the cleanest and dirtiest companies. But when it comes to human rights, there's no easy scorecard.

The idea is too new.

"A consumer wants to know who are the good companies and who are the bad companies," says Sharon Cohen, vice president of public affairs for Reebok International Ltd. But "I think that's a little bit tougher read than buying recycled paper."

But consumers can pick up clues about how seriously a company treats the subject by looking at the company's Web site. Does it stress human rights or dismiss the subject? Has the company published a report on its factories? Was the report independent? Has the company joined an industry group addressing the issue?

In apparel, for example, generally well-regarded companies such as Eddie Bauer, Levi Strauss, L.L. Bean, and Phillips-Van Heusen have joined the two-year-old Fair Labor Association (www.fairlabor.org), which aims to eliminate sweatshops. But opinions differ. While some human rights groups have joined the group, others charge it's a corporate sellout.

For other consumer goods, the Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency (www.cepaa.org) has begun certifying individual company factories that meet its labor standards. But the effort is just now under way. This month, the group's affiliate (www.cepnyc.org) is scheduled to publish its latest shopping guide, which rates companies on various social and environmental criteria.

Investors should also keep an eye on companies' human rights record, activists say.

For example, the AFL-CIO for the first time in its history is intervening in an international initial public offering of stock. The labor federation has convinced several institutional investors (worth some $1 trillion) not to invest in the PetroChina Company, which hopes to raise money by selling stock in the West. The state-owned Chinese company has been linked to human rights abuses in Tibet as well as unrest and killings in Sudan.

Now, a human rights organization called the American Anti-Slavery Group is mounting a US boycott of Amoco gas stations in response to BP-Amoco's proposed $1 billion investment in PetroChina. "There's a link between investment risk and human rights abuses," warns Bill Patterson, director of the AFL-CIO's office of investment in Washington, DC. "Shareholders, I think, are increasingly aware of the need for international companies to polish their corporate image."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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