Two years ago I produced a list of especially responsible (socially and environmentally) and irresponsible businesses, provided by Responsible Shopper and vetted by The Better World Handbook. Two years later, Responsible Shopper, a division of Coop America, remains the definitive resource of such information, with extensive online documentation to support the company ratings. The Responsible Shopper recognizes the fact that large companies almost always get accused of doing something wrong, and in their detailed profiles of each company, they give credit for each company’s social and environmental programs, and balance these positives against the negatives in coming up with their ratings. The company profiles also list brands and subsidiaries of each company (bet you’ll be surprised how broad the reach of these companies is).
However, perhaps because of budget limitations, Responsible Shopper has narrowed their scope to consumer product companies, no longer reviewing companies (like the dreaded Monsanto) that sell mainly to businesses, or which sell services rather than products. Because I have been unable to find alternative resources evaluating such companies, I have left them on the list below but show them in italics to indicate the information may be outdated. Companies that have improved in the ratings are marked with a [+], while those whose ratings have worsened or are new to the ‘avoid’ list are marked with a [-]. Where Responsible Shopper no longer tracks an entire industry (like airlines), the industry sector name is italicized in the list below. I would love to hear from readers who can point me to more current assessments of corporate responsibility in these sectors. Companies receiving poor ratings from other credible evaluation sources are noted in the list as follows: [EC] evaluated by Ethical Consumer; [BW] evaluated by Better World Handbook.
You can help make business, and society as a whole, more socially and environmentally responsible by avoiding, where you have a choice, the purchase of products and services from the companies in the right column, especially the worst offenders marked with an asterisk. The companies on the left are mostly small and have limited product range, but in case you want to check them out I’ve provided links to their sites. Most of them sell over the Internet.
Common sense applies, of course. Rule #1 is to avoid buying disposable products from anyone when there is a reusable or at least recyclable alternative. Specifically, avoid styrofoam and plastic kitchen goods and ‘wipes’ of all kinds. Also avoid overpackaged goods, shoddily-made products, toxic and carcinogenic products (e.g. those made with PVC), goods made of unsustainable resources and goods that entail exploitation of third world labour or suffering of animals — regardless of which company makes them. And rule #2 is simply to buy and use less stuff.
Generally, it’s also environmentally (less transportation) and socially (support local labour) responsible to buy local whenever possible, and especially to avoid buying products and services from countries that aren’t free (where sweatshops are generally common and environmental standards are usually low).
Some progressives believe boycotts are useless, because social and environmental damage is endemic in our economic system, which views such costs as ‘external’ and therefore mostly to be ignored. I think that’s overly cynical, but because it’s often hard to find any responsible company in some sectors, I’ve expanded the lists on the left hand side to provide more alternatives. If you believe any of these companies (from Coop America’s Green Pages) should not be on the list, or if you have other suggestions to add, please e-mail me or note them in the comment thread below. I will undertake to maintain this list more frequently and keep it posted on my right sidebar under ‘Signature Essays’ so it’s easier to find.
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Thanks to Mike for helping me fix the formatting in this article.
What, no plug for open source software in the computer section? I guess it doesn’t matter anyway, since I can’t get a computer to run it on, since every processor manufacturer is on the ‘avoid’ list. I really think it would be more helpful in such cases to list preferable choices, rather than just say “they’re all bad.” That way you include people rather than turning them off the whole idea of making responsible choices about their consumption.
Those recommended utilities are just the USA umbrella groups for the wind and solar industries. You can’t buy power from them.They also count as members several companies in your ‘avoid’ list: GE is a major manufacturer of wind turbines, and BP Solar makes most photovoltaics.On another note, I wonder if the Society of Friends can reclaim the Quaker name from Pennzoil and PepsiCo?
I’m glad to see you have J. Cruel (http://www.jcruel.com/index2.asp) on your list!
Regarding food products:Whole Foods is notoriously anti-labor, and there are calls to buycott the chain.http://www.wholeworkersunite.org/Hain-Celestial is partially owned by Heinz, while Seeds of Change is owned by M&M Mars (for more multinational-organic links see http://www.certifiedorganic.bc.ca/rcbtoa/services/corporate-ownership.html). Both Hain-Celestial and Whole Foods backed the recent weakening of the national organic standards that was slipped into a congressional spending bill. The only company of significant size to oppose the rider was Eden Foods. Another option is to buy from food cooperatives or buying clubs.
Dave, can you elaborate why you put Costco under the “avoid” label in the “clothing” category? I find that Costco is one of the few stores where I can consistently find “made in Canada” clothing. They have quite a few “made in China” articles, but surprisingly many “made in Canada,” too. Isn’t that at least more local (a sweatshop in Montreal or Winnipeg) than overseas production? Furthermore, while I would love to buy clothes at LuluLemon, for example (which makes all its clothes locally, in Vancouver …or at least did, maybe that’s no longer the case, now that they’ve gone international, who knows?), I simply can’t afford to. But really, Costco, it seems to me, isn’t on the same level as Wal-Mart, regardless of the apparent similarity in big-boxishness. There’s still a lot of local stuff there. In fact, I’d argue that it’s not even as bad as Great Canadian Superstore, which is so rigorously centralised that even “local” is no longer local: that chain ships BC salmon all the way to Calgary for central processing, and then ships it back to BC to sell. Talk about adding petrochemical calories to your food! (Plus, almost everything non-food they sell is made in China. I spend hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on food each month, feeding two teenagers (and buy most of it, teeth clenched at the high prices, at our local island-grown supermarket, Thrifty’s — which is anything but thrifty). My kids don’t go to school and don’t care about having brand name clothing, yet they do need clothes, too. I don’t go to Wal-Mart ever, but I simply can’t buy only organic and only from “approved” clothing outlets. That’s just not realistic. Singling out Costco to “avoid” under “clothing” strikes me as weird — what’s left? Those other outlets that are approved are elitist and expensive. They sell an image as much as clothes — just like LuluLemon. It’s cute and desirable and signals that you’re “cool,” but it’s pretty pricey branding.
Perhaps you’d be interested in joining the Starbucks Challenge?
Two sides to every story, and Iams seems to be working harder than any pet food company to learn new things to advance pet nutrition while taking care of its own cats and dogs.http://www.IamsTruth.com
Chris: I tried to come up with preferable choices in every category, but there were a few where this was impossible. Hopefully some innovative reader will see this as a business opportunity — my sense is that the first computer company to employ Cradle to Cradle manufacturing and use a strong code of conduct would have a huge competitive advantage, since most computer users are quite aware of the problems their favourite toys produce.Scruss, Larry: Thanks for the additional information. I’ll add it to the next version of the list.Yule: This is Responsible Shopper’s assessment, and their database provides the rationale for their rating (9 significant areas of criticism). It’s on the avoid list, while Wal-Mart is on the boycott list, and as you say they are not on the same level. I sympathize with the challenge you face buying clothing for kids. I guess teaching them to make their own clothes would be out of the question? ;-)Green LA girl: Sure, I’m up for a challenge.Vet: Yes there are two sides to every story, but your employer, Iams, and their employer, P&G, have done an abysmal job of telling their side. Their opposition to PETA’s shareholder resolutions, which seem very reasonable to me (and consistent with what Iams purports to be) just destroys your credibility, and the fact that Iams has to set up its own Greenwashing site to ‘protest the protesters’ suggests to me they aren’t very serious about making real change. I can’t help but think Iams selling out to P&G was one of the worst business decisions in history, because P&G also has a dubious record on these issues. If Iams puts in place policies to prevent needless animal cruelty, that will raise pressure on P&G to adopt the same policies, which they have repeatedly said they aren’t prepared to do.
Just see this list, and just curious, why Motorola and Lucent? I was employee to both companies some time ago.
Glad to see FSC wood on your list. It is a great certification. One great company I have had several good experiences in is Lewis Lumber here. Mostly an East-coast operation, but I’m sure they could ship most places.