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Guide Rates Firms' Political 'Correctness' : * Lifestyle: Ratings on issues from minority hiring to the environment allow consumers to patronize companies that share their concerns.

March 04, 1992|LYNN SIMROSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Are you paying to discriminate against women and families, pollute rivers and support apartheid in South Africa when you buy household cleaners, soy sauce or shampoo at the supermarket?

You might be, unwittingly, because most manufacturers don't share their social and environmental policies with consumers.

The 1992 "Shopping for a Better World," a guide that rates corporations on their social and environmental responsibility, can help consumers determine what manufacturers fit individuals' social and environmental concerns.

First published in 1989 by the Council on Economic Priorities, "Shopping for a Better World" has sold 850,000 copies, according to council executive director Alice Tepper Marlin.

This year, to help buyers know what corporations are up to, the pocket-sized CEP guide rates 166 American companies that manufacture more than 2,000 products.

They are judged on 10 concerns: charitable contributions, advancement to executive positions for women, advancement to executive positions for minorities, product testing on animals, willingness to disclose information on social and environmental policies, community outreach, holdings in South Africa, environmental pollution, benefits for families and such workplace issues as job safety, medical coverage and pension plans. The guide also includes CEP's first "winners and sinners" list of U.S. firms.

And, for the first time, the New-York based CEP has added ratings for Japanese and British firms that sell products in the United States.

"It's a very useful guide for people who want to use it for purchasing decisions and also give public support to more forward-looking corporations," says Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action.

"It also can serve as an incentive for other corporations to catch up," he said. "It's very important for corporations to be good citizens as much as private individuals need to be."

Consumer Action, a San Francisco consumer advocacy group, publishes surveys on such subjects as long-distance telephone costs and credit card interest rates.

Although several other consumer groups similarly survey corporations, none targets consumers nationwide with such a comprehensive guide, says Tim Smith, director of Interface Center on Corporate Responsibility in New York. Smith's group researches corporations for shareholder groups.

Smith, also an adviser to CEP on its guide, says: "It serves a real need for people who want to have their consumer dollars mesh with their values."

Several American firms, concerned about 1991 scores, met with CEP representatives to discuss how to improve them.

Officials of Church & Dwight, which manufactures Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, toothpaste, air fresheners and laundry detergent, studied CEP recommendations for changes in some corporate policies. This year, the Princeton, N.J., company ended up on CEP's honor roll, receiving "outstanding" marks in nine of the 10 categories.

"Church & Dwight added two women to its top executive ranks, both now among the company's 25 highest paid officers," Marlin says. "It reduced the number of animals tested by 37% (and funds research on alternative methods) and it has among the best environmental programs."

Church & Dwight also contributes 5.2% of its pretax income to charity, one of the highest percentages among large U.S. firms.

It has an employee housing assistance program that helps its workers "bridge the financial gap to own a home in exchange for a five-year commitment to community volunteering," according to Marlin.

The only category in which the company received a "moderate" score was advancement for minorities. "We're as good as anybody else in minority advancement, but we could be better," says Bryan Thomlison, the firm's director of environmental management.

"When the book comes out in 1993, we will have demonstrated we've advanced."

Some corporate executives say their companies deserved better marks from CEP; others did not return survey material. (Of 166 rated firms, 85 provided extensive information, 31 gave limited information and 50 offered little or no material.)

Mobil Corp. representatives say they should have received a better environmental rating. CEP gave Mobil a low rating (and put it on the overall "sinners list") because of violations at its Torrance plant in 1989 and 1990.

"There's been a major turnaround at Torrance on environmental safety and reliability since then," says Mobil's John Lord. "The facility should have been rated on its '91 performance."

A CEP spokeswoman acknowledges Mobil's efforts in Torrance but said the company had many other environmental problems.

Mobil complied with CEP's request for information, answering a lengthy questionnaire about company policies in the 10 categories. The company scored low in charitable donations, Lord says, because it did not include "our support of public broadcasting" in that category for the survey. "That would raise the total by $10 million," he adds.

Some companies that received "dishonorable" ratings simply did not reply to the questionnaire.

ConAgra, the parent corporation for 70 companies, among them Orville Redenbacher popcorn and Wesson Oil, says it is "too decentralized" to do such a time-consuming analysis.

"The way we're organized, we would have had to staff up just to do the 40-page questionnaire," says ConAgra's Lynn Phares.

Kimberly-Clark Corp., manufacturers of Kleenex tissues and Huggies diapers, declined to respond to the survey and ended up with a "sinners" rating.

"We will not participate as long as personal, political and partisan opinions define the standards (of the CEP survey)," says Kimberly-Clark's Tina Berry. "They do not use objectively defined criteria."

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