Now, a guide for the `ethical shopper'

Rating America's Corporate Conscience, by Steven D. Lydenberg, Alice Tepper Marlin, Sean O'Brien Strub, and the Council on Economic Priorities. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Publishing. 499 pp. $14.95. First, there was ethical investing.

Apartheid, nuclear weapons, and other social concerns have prompted people to put money behind their principles. Nearly $6 billion now resides in socially earmarked mutual funds. Add pension funds with ethical guidelines, and the figure soars to $100 billion.

Next, there will be ``socially responsible shopping.'' At least that's the intent behind ``Rating America's Corporate Conscience.''

``I've cleared my stock portfolio for ethical reasons, why then continue to purchase products from these companies?'' asks co-author Steven D. Lydenberg of the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP), a New York nonprofit research group that advocates corporate social responsibility.

The book rates the social performance of 130 major corporations. For shopping convenience, companies are categorized by products or services (food, household items, travel, and health care).

Through company profiles and easy-to-comprehend charts, the book examines charitable contributions, minority and female representation on corporate boards, involvement in South Africa, and weapons contracts.

For example, consumers wishing to support an early foe of apartheid are encouraged to choose Polaroid when shopping for a camera. The ice cream of CEP's choice is made by Hershey Foods (Friendly's) and Pillsbury (H"aagen-Dazs, Seduto). Both companies scored well on charitable giving and board composition. And Procter & Gamble's Jif won the peanut butter finals by virtue of the parent company's early attention to employee child care. But ``the product itself isn't being rated,'' co-author Alice Tepper Marlin notes.

While the book seems intended to get people to support companies the council identifies as having ethical policies, it also speaks to social sluggards. One ad for the book reads: ``Their eye shadow comes in 24 bold new colors, but their board of directors still only comes in white.'' Ms. Marlin identifies the product as Maybelline, made by Schering-Plough.

``If enough moral-minded consumers shop this way, companies will respond,'' said Marlin, president of the council.

Among the companies winning CEP praise were Polaroid, Johnson & Johnson, Amoco, and Clorox. But the food companies overall placed highest. Pillsbury topped that list.

Lest the book be thought of as a shopping guide for liberals, its authors note that Pillsbury makes major contributions to conservative think tanks.

While the CEP gives its preferences, individuals may be challenged in making their own judgments. A company's ethical standing is seldom cut and dried. For instance, General Electric is a big charitable giver and a strong, early advocate of women and minority employment; it has left South Africa and has placed in a book of ``The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America.'' Yet the council did not choose General Electric as a preferred vendor, since it was the fourth-largest US military contractor in 1985.

The book does have shortcomings. Where, for example, are environmental ratings? And some data are already dated. Information on US companies doing business in South Africa comes from a study released last May. Since then, more than half a dozen companies have pulled out, including Eastman Kodak, Exxon, Procter & Gamble, and Coca-Cola, which are rated in the book.

The council pleads lack of information on environmental issues. Addison-Wesley plans to update the book in its second printing. But Marlin concedes ``there's no way to predict what parts of this book will become inaccurate tomorrow.''

While several corporate chiefs have endorsed this effort, not everyone is delighted by the attention. Mobil, for instance, refused to answer the questionnaire.

After seeing a draft of the report, Mobil's feisty public-relations point man, Herbert Schmertz, shot back an angry letter: ``Judging from past jousts with the CEP, we expected a biased, hostile report replete with inaccuracies and that's just what we got.'' Mr. Schmertz criticized ``unsophisticated and shallow methodology.''

But if this book sells, the council plans to follow up with sequels on Japanese and European corporations.

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