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VIEWPOINTS : Consumers Can Use Social Responsibility in Shopping Choices

March 08, 1987|STEVEN D. LYDENBERG | Steven D. Lydenberg is a co-author of "Rating Americ's Corporate Conscience," and a project director with the Council on Economic Priorities

You're at the crossroads and your gas gauge is on empty. There's a choice of Mobil, Texaco, Arco and Exxon service stations. The prices on the signs are all about the same, and you're trying to decide. Did you know that Mobil and Texaco have operations in South Africa permitting sales to the military and police? Arco has no operations there, and Exxon just pulled out.

Perhaps you need an air conditioner for a long, hot spell. The advertisements give the information you need on price, energy efficiency and warranties.

Did you know that the GE, Amana and Carrier models come from major military contractors--General Electric, Raytheon and United Technologies--that are involved in nuclear arms-related work? Whirlpool and Maytag, on the other hand, don't have arms contracts.

Or maybe you're trying to choose from a dozen shades of Maybelline polish for your nails. But its manufacturer, Schering-Plough, has only one color on its board of directors. If you'd known to look further, you might have found Avon, a company with three women, one of whom is black, on its board.

While consumers read ingredient labels, compare prices and study records of reliability, they also can consider the social records of the companies they patronize. By doing so, they would be following the lead of various public entities.

Cities Limit Contracting

For instance, there are now 33 cities, including Los Angeles, that have limited their contracting with U.S. firms operating in South Africa. Eight cities and counties, including Berkeley and Marin County in California, restrict their purchases from companies doing nuclear weapons work.

In doing the daily shopping, consumers can take social considerations into account, too. Take peanut butter: Jif and Skippy are made by companies with contrasting social records--Procter & Gamble and CPC International.

P&G, which makes Jif, has no operations in South Africa. CPC does--and has recently received poor grades for compliance with the Sullivan Principles (a set of racially fair employment guidelines developed by the Rev. Leon Sullivan for South Africa).

P&G also has the more generous charitable contributions program and named an American Indian as a vice president in 1985. CPC has taken no comparable step.

Over the years, the companies behind many brand-name products have taken some major positive initiatives.

Amoco, for example, is a leader among Chicago corporations in underwriting community groups' housing rehabilitation projects for low- and moderate-income families.

International Business Machines supports a nationwide network of 57 job training centers. They are run in partnership with local job training organizations and grew from a pilot project in Los Angeles more than 15 years ago.

Spearheaded Youth Center

Clorox, which produces Hidden Valley salad dressings and Formula 409 cleanser as well as laundry products, spearheaded the construction and endowment of a multimillion-dollar youth center in its economically depressed headquarters city of Oakland.

Others have a history of controversy.

A. H. Robins--maker of Robitussin, Extend 12 and ChapStick--is embroiled in a monumental series of lawsuits over the safety and efficacy of its intrauterine contraceptive device, the Dalkon Shield.

In lawsuits, thousands of women have blamed the device for causing pelvic infections, spontaneous abortions and sterility.

SmithKline Beckman (Contac, Sine-Off) pleaded guilty in 1984 to delaying reports to the Food and Drug Administration on the harmful side effects of one of its drugs, Selacryn. About 25 deaths were linked to the drug, which has been withdrawn from the market.

Even when consumers have the facts about social initiatives before them, there can be dilemmas. Philip Morris, owner of General Foods and Miller Brewing, aggressively promotes cigarettes at home and abroad and adamantly opposes restrictive smoking legislation around the country.

Yet within the corporation it is a strong supporter of minorities, and two blacks are among the company's top 12 executives, a rarity among Fortune 500 companies. Philip Morris also is a corporate leader in promoting patronage of minority-owned businesses and banks. And it has a longtime reputation for support of the arts.

It is encouraging to find companies with strong records on social commitments without major controversy, especially for a consumer concerned with a particular issue such as South Africa or the family.

Polaroid, for example, stopped selling to the South African government back in 1971 and banned all sales in that country in 1977 when it discovered that its cameras were making their way to government agencies despite the ban.

Procter & Gamble has been a leader among major U.S. firms in granting paid maternity leave to new mothers. It also extended unpaid leave at childbirth or upon adoption for both mothers and fathers, offered benefits covering child-care expenses and developed a network of quality child-care providers in its headquarters city of Cincinnati.

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