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Stopping the outcry before it starts

Brand-sensitive retailers act fast to defuse ethical issues before they explode into costly boycotts

(Page 2 of 2)

For example, shoppers who sought to protect endangered forests and purchase more recycled paper products largely avoided paper products sold by Staples and Office Depot before the two firms began demanding stronger conservation practices from their suppliers in 2002 and 2004, respectively, Mr. Paglia says. A similar campaign is targeting Victoria's Secret, which is under pressure to use 50 percent recycled paper in its millions of mailed catalogs and shun paper derived from wilderness regions of the Canadian Boreal Forest. Limited Brands, parent company of Victoria's Secret, says the company uses recycled paper content "where feasible" and shows "preference" to suppliers whose sources are certified as sustainable and legally harvested.

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In Paglia's view, consumers have strengthened their hand in recent years through new opportunities to make their case verbally and visibly.

"Back when we first started the Staples campaign [in 2000], if you got a dozen or two dozen protests to happen against the company nationwide, that was pretty good," Paglia says. "We're now at a point, because of the Internet and communities that are developing online, [where] we can do 200 protests – so we're hitting 20 or 30 percent of a company's stores – on a single day.... That kind of response is so different from where we were five years ago that I think companies have to take it more seriously."

In some cases, activists and consumers have together pressured retailers to improve practices, but their supply chains are the ultimate target. Example: computer recycling programs. Pressure from customers in recent years has helped cajole Hewlett Packard, Apple, and Dell to begin taking back used computers, printers, and other hardware. While this practice has the immediate benefit of reducing exposure to toxic waste in the developing world's salvage yards, the long-term goal is to get the chemical industry to furnish more ecofriendly raw materials for the next generation of computers.

"It's going to take HP or electronics producers or other people who use those chemicals to try to force the chemical industry to make some changes," says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Computer TakeBack Campaign, a recycling advocacy project based in San Jose, Calif. By persuading producers to recycle, she says, consumers and activists establish a financial incentive for them to demand that computer components consist of chemicals that are easy to recycle.

Some consumer activists meanwhile aren't putting much stock in retailers to champion their supply-chain causes.

The Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, for instance, is boycotting milk products made by Horizon Organic and Aurora Organic Dairy. Among its concerns, the OCA alleges that farmers in both firms' supply chains don't give cows in feeding pens adequate time to graze pasture land. It's a claim supported in complaints filed this summer with the US Department of Agriculture by the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based advocacy group for small farms. Both Horizon and Aurora deny the allegations.

Sensitive to food quality, the OCA shares many concerns with shoppers abroad. But unlike European activists, OCA isn't courting alliances with their large-scale retailers in a bid to ensure high standards in their organic supply chains.

Big retailers "are driving down the quality of US organic products by treating the organic marketplace like it's the conventional one" and demanding low prices as a priority concern, says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the OCA.

Meanwhile, even US companies that don't sell directly to consumers are raising standards for their suppliers in a bid to protect their brand names – and avoid the costly process of damage control.

"I think it did catalyze the industry" to have the retailer customers demand a new policy from all soy suppliers in the Amazon, says Lori Johnson, spokeswoman for Cargill. Even so, she adds, "our reputation was damaged a bit in this process, certainly by the campaign.... And all companies want to deal with other reputable companies. So ... it does matter – even if you'll never go to the grocery store and pick up something that says 'Cargill.' "