More shoppers weigh ethics. Buying can hinge on issues such as apartheid

How far will most people really push their values? When it comes to money, not very far.

But recent headlines indicate that society, at least in a general sense, is becoming more conscious of where it puts its money. And while it still has a long way to go - the number of dollars spent ``responsibly'' being small by comparison - ethical spending seems to be moving forward in the United States.

Right now, only $400 billion of total investments are engaged in socially responsible funds. And ``ethical consumerism'' hasn't turned the grocery shelves upside down either.

Those who wish to see social responsibility in citizen economics say the idea just needs more time and the public needs more awareness. But the interest and willingness is already there, they say.

Recent threats of boycotts have forced companies like Coca-Cola and Revlon to rethink their positions on South Africa. ``In many cases like this, consumers have been very effective,'' says Marcy Murninghan at the Lighthouse Investment Group, which handles issues of corporate responsibility.

Indeed, public outcry over investment in South Africa has ``put tremendous pressure on people who invest, as well as the companies they invest in,'' says Rosalyn Will at the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP), which has compared the performance of companies in various social areas since its founding in 1969.

So far this year, 10 large corporations signed the Sullivan Principles for fair labor practices in South Africa, five reformed their policies on nuclear energy and the environment, and seven revised their policies on minority hiring.

Citizen pressure has pushed more than 35 cities and states to institute selective purchasing rules, which prohibit or restrict buying from companies still supporting the South African apartheid system, says the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

``This kind of boycott is really packing a wallop,'' Ms. Murninghan says.

``We've seen many people who are really trying to think more deeply about what their money is doing,'' agrees Gordon Davidson, executive director of the Social Investment Forum in Boston.

But while cities and states, boycotting citizens, and monied investors are able to influence corporate behavior, actions taken by the individual consumer are rarely more than symbolic. And this means ethics won't easily pervade everyday financial affairs.

Because decisions based on ethical criteria are not always clear cut, ``not everyone will make them,'' says Patrick McVeigh, vice-president of investments at Franklin Research and Development, a financial consulting group in Boston.

Companies are rarely completely good or completely bad. IBM, for example, has one of the most comprehensive job training programs for underprivileged youth, practices fair hiring and promotion, and yet sells computers in South Africa and holds major nuclear contracts.

Similarly, while Maytag has earned a solid reputation for producing quality products, the company's record in promoting women and minorities is reportedly poor.

However, Murninghan argues that ``there is another side to this - we can all reward companies that are doing commendable things by buying their products.''

Yet, ``most people are not at all aware of where companies put their money ... or which companies make which brands,'' says Anthony Walker at the Social Investment Forum.

The mass of mergers and takeovers has added to the confusion, making it difficult for a consumer to buy with any knowledge of who or what is behind a product.

``There is definitely a tremendous need for information,'' agrees Timothy Smith, executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a New York coalition of churches that coordinates research on programs of corporate responsibility.

And as more ways for translating ethics into dollars open up, ``awareness grows,'' Mr. McVeigh says.

In order to bring this knowledge to mainstream American consumers, the Council on Economic Priorities has published a book ``Rating America's Corporate Conscience.''

This guide to major US companies - already in its third edition - rates their social responsibility in areas like promoting women and minorities, environmental protection, nuclear contracting, investment in South Africa, and charitable contributions, says co-author Alice Tepper Marlin, who founded the CEP in 1969.

``We want to encourage consumers to look beyond the labels at what the companies are doing or not doing for society,'' says Steve Lydenberg, a co-author of the book.

Social investors have already broadened their horizons to include these issues. But because social investing itself is limited - there are only about seven ethically oriented mutual funds to choose from - consumer activism needs to strengthen its voice.

Companies respond more readily to consumer voices, Murninghan says. They are sensitive to public image. And ``companies spend millions to gain even a small percent of market share ... so they won't ignore a drop [in market share] either,'' Mr. Davidson says.

If ``a great number of people were to consume responsibly, they could have a dramatic impact on the way companies operate,'' Lydenberg notes.

``We might not be able to stop the production of nuclear weapons,'' Marlin says, ``but you may be able to get a company to put a woman on the board, or promote minorities, and give more to charity.''

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