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Council Offers Guide to the Social Conscience of Various Companies

The Washington Post

Pauline Quan doesn’t chew Wrigley’s gum anymore.

A bookkeeper in Arlington Heights, Ill., Quan switched to Warner-Lambert Co.'s Sticklets after the company that makes Wrigley’s gum was accused by a nonprofit group of being socially irresponsible.

“No more Wrigley products for me,” she wrote in a letter to the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. in Chicago.

Quan is among a growing number of American consumers who browse the aisles of supermarkets, searching for products made by companies that they believe have a conscience and a sense of social responsibility. Many of them consult tools such as “Shopping for a Better World,” a pocket guide to “socially responsible supermarket shopping” that gave Wrigley the bad rap.

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The guide, compiled by the Council on Economic Priorities, looks at 138 companies and 1,300 products, evaluating them on such issues as the advancement of women and minorities, protection of the environment, community outreach and charitable giving.

“Clearly, there is a segment--a growing one in the consumer base--which is increasingly concerned with the corporate consciences of the companies they do business with,” said James E. Preston, chairman and CEO of Avon Products Inc., which has been cited by the council for having a “corporate conscience.”

Consequently, many companies have become more concerned about their social images. “Any corporation that doesn’t project itself as concerned about the welfare of its consumers is basically stuck in time with a very primitive marketing program,” said Herbert Chao Gunter, executive director of the Public Media Center, a public interest advertising firm in San Francisco.

According to a council survey, 80% of the consumers it polled said they had changed their shopping habits after reading the guide. Two-thirds said they were in the habit of looking something up when they shop, and about the same number actually remembered company ratings.

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Consumer awareness also is raised by an annual awards dinner that the council sponsors to recognize companies with exemplary performance in areas such as equal opportunity, charitable giving, employee responsiveness, environmental responsibility and community action.

Five companies, out of 20 competitors, made the grade this year.

Arlington-based Applied Energy Services, an independent power generator and consultant, made the list for a tree-planting program in Guatemala designed to combat the greenhouse effect; Dayton Hudson, a Minneapolis-based chain of retail stores, for its 43-year-old charitable-giving program; Federal Express for “employer responsiveness,” particularly its no-layoff policy; Eastman Kodak for its support of small businesses owned by women, minorities and the handicapped, and Digital Equipment Corp. for its widespread support of community programs.

H.B. Fuller, the paint and adhesive company, and Newman’s Own, a company founded by actor Paul Newman, received honorable mentions.

At the bottom of the list, at least according to the council’s criteria, were Du Pont--for its role in managing the Savannah River nuclear power plant--and meatpacker John Morrell & Co. Morrell was fined $4.3 million for having dangerous conditions in the work place. Both firms were to receive dishonorable mentions.

Du Pont has attributed its difficulties at the plant to outside technical inspectors and insists that it never tried to cover up any problems.

Morrell has accused both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and congressional Democrats of mounting a vendetta against the company. Morrell officials said the company has cleaned up most of the safety violations that it was fined for allowing.

Despite the interest and activism of some consumers, it is difficult to gauge how corporate social behavior translates into sales--or lost sales--at the cash register.

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Wrigley, for example, did not respond to a survey from the council and said its first obligation is to its shareholders.

“Our social responsibility is as strong as any corporation’s, but why should we support some group making a business out of sending these things out,” said William Piet, Wrigley’s vice president of corporate affairs. The company does its giving through a special foundation, he said, which was not included in the guide’s ratings.

Many corporations in the last 20 years have improved their track record in areas such as charitable giving, the promotion of women, and their role in South Africa, according to Alice Tepper Marlin, executive director of the council.

Marlin points out, however, that gains have been offset by what she views as negative developments--the rise of corporate giving to political action committees and the effect of mergers, acquisitions and leveraged buyouts on corporate volunteerism, charitable giving and employee benefits.

“Their consciences vary as much as they do for any individual,” she said.


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