Imbued with a newly influential concept, consumers have begun to embrace the simple, quiet activism of casting their economic vote conscientiously at the checkout counter, an act which can empower us all.

Acceptance speech – Alice Tepper Marlin

I’d like to thank The Right Livelihood Awards and Jakob von Uexkull for bringing us together here at a time when social activism, responsibility and empowerment are in the air. Some people are saying the ’90s will make the ’60s look as quiet as the ’50s and as generous as the ’80s.

The crumbling of the Berlin Wall, Vaclav Havel’s improbable walk from prison to the Czech President’s chair, the rapid acceptance of “green consumerism”, and Nelson Mandela’s freedom all attest to it.

Not that our environmental problems are solved. In fact, if Central Europe, China and others succeed in their quest for a modern consumer economy, the resulting toll on the environment will be even heavier and even less reversible. Nelson Mandela still can’t vote. Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union still face terrifying ethnic conflicts and daunting economic challenges. These recent, eager converts from communism have yet to develop the regulatory apparatus and public interest watchdogs that are essential to reigning in the short-term thinking and excessive materialism often found in the market.

But, imbued with a newly influential concept, consumers have begun to embrace the simple, quiet activism of casting their economic vote conscientiously at the checkout counter, an act which can empower us all.

These consumers don’t like the fact that our knowledge about the products we buy comes most often from a TV set whose volume goes up whenever it comes time to tout a particular brand of detergent. They are suspicious of jingles and graphic images that vie to influence which brand of shampoo we buy, where we invest, and where we choose to pursue our careers.

People are worried. Because beaches have become mired in carelessly discarded and often hazardous waste. Because landfills leak toxins into our drinking water. Because in many American cities nearly half our children are born into poverty, many addicted at birth to the cocaine derivative crack. Few receive decent child care or an internationally competitive education.

Because our energy supplies – and with them tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives – are in danger in the Gulf, yet we’ve wasted a decade. If the U.S. had spent as much from August through December on improving energy efficiency as we’ve spent mobilizing in the Gulf, the U.S. could have eliminated our oil imports from the Gulf.

So, for 22 years, our staff at the Council on Economic Priorities has worked to develop and apply consistent, comprehensive criteria for evaluating the social performance of companies as rigorously as their financial performance is traditionally rated. For example, our annual pocket guide, Shopping for a Better World rates the social responsibility of nearly 200 companies producing more than 2,000 consumer items.

Since it was first published 2 years ago, 800,000 copies have been sold. A survey indicates roughly 80% of the guide buyers have actually switched brands based on our social ratings. Two thirds regularly check the guide whenever they shop. In the United Kingdom, New Consumer aims to do the same job for the British. In Japan, Asahi Journal has embarked on a similar program. We hope Sweden will be inspired to do the same here.

CEP’s ratings encompass:

1. Charitable contributions,

2. Appointment of women, and of

3. Minorities to top positions

These 3 are areas where U.S. Companies tend to out-perform European and Japanese companies.

4. Environmental records, and

5. Family benefits,

both areas where European and Japanese companies tend to outperform American firms.

6. Community economic development,

7. Employee relations,

8. Testing on live animals for nonmedical consumer products,

9. Involvement in South Africa,

10. Nuclear power, and

11. Disclosure

Companies earning top ratings in 9 of our 11 categories made our 1990 honor list. They include Quaker Oats, Celestial Seasonings, General Mills, Newman’s Own, Sara Lee and 3M.

These records of achievement contrast sharply with such companies as USX which has not a single woman or minority on its board. U.S. courts fined USX 12 million Dollars for discriminating in hiring against blacks who had applied as laborers and 3 million dollars in damages to 300 women denied jobs at USX mining operations because of their gender. Or Texaco whose chemical plant on the Texas Gulf Coast was cited last year by the EPA as the country’s worst air pollution risk. Nearby residents face a one-in-ten risk of cancer from emissions of Butadiene.

Once consumers know that Nabisco cereals are made by a major cigarette maker and promoter with a record of repeated environmental violations, and that an estimated 2.5 million people die every year as a consequence of smoking, then selecting cereals made by a competitor like Kelloggs looks like a pretty wise alternative. Kelloggs has had no known environmental infractions in the past three years, and has made its boxes of recycled paper since 1906.

Once we saw Revlon and Avon halt animal tests for cosmetics and witnessed the Tuna Boycott bring Heinz into line to save tens of thousands of dolphins a year, few think “my vote doesn’t count.’

If companies selling their products in Sweden are “X-rated”, then your consumer choices, your letters and your outcry could make a difference. Remember what Abraham Lincoln said: “To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards of men.” Today he’d say women too!

Wise managements know that for every customer who bothers to write and mail a letter, 200 to 500 more feel the same way, and will vote silently with their pocketbooks.

When the Council on Economic priorities started 21 years ago, few companies were aware of their social responsibility and few citizens felt able to do much about a company’s poor record. Today we have begun to mobilize consumer power for positive social and environmental change – one purchase at a time.

As more and more shoppers make informed, socially sound choices, such as recycling, selecting goods with simple, biodegradable packaging, buying only what we need, and looking at the companies behind the products we buy, we are converting our shopping carts into vehicles for social change.

Social Accountability International
15 West 44th Street, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10036