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October 1, 2009

Responsible Dysfunction

Admin note: reading over this post afterward, I feel like I somehow channeled my inner Abe Simpson: I don't understand what's going on, I can't figure out this confounded technology, and I just wish someone would sit me down and explain things in a nice, simple manner. I'm not usually prone to ranting, but that's kind of what this post seems like in retrospect: a long, rambling airing of grievances that may serve no purpose other than to demonstrate how mentally discombobulated I can become. When exactly did I become a cantankerous old man?

One of the saddest paradoxes of socially conscious consumerism is this: more people would probably make thoughtful purchase decisions if it weren’t so darn-near impossible to stay properly informed.

Put another way: if you ever want to fall down an Internet rabbit hole, try Googling something like “socially responsible shoe companies”, or “eco-friendly corporations”, and start clicking your way through the mind-bogglingly vast, infuriatingly disjointed world of corporate watchdog agencies.

When I posted my plea for good sources of information on responsible businesses, I had no idea the quest would get so complex – or that so many promising avenues would lead me to dead ends. This isn’t a knock against everyone who gave me websites; I’m very grateful for all of your assistance. Rather, it’s an indictment of just how confusing and fruitless the queries of a conscientious shopper can become.

It becomes obvious that the term “responsible” is far too broad, requiring an immediate narrowing of your search into very specific categories. Are you interested in which companies treat their workers fairly, or those who prevent animal mistreatment? How about those who contribute to worthy social causes, or who work for change with repressive governments? And what about preserving our natural resources, eliminating toxic by-products, and minimizing our carbon footprint? Every one of these considerations introduces a whole new squadron of players.

From Patagonia website

There are dozens of “corporate accountability” websites, and literally hundreds of “eco-awareness” sites that try to hold companies accountable to certain manufacturing guidelines or business practices. The trouble is that there aren’t any uniform criteria for what qualifies as “responsible” – and nearly all of these agencies seem to be working independently of one another. Even worse is that many of the larger, more recognizable agencies aren’t overly forthcoming with information geared towards the general public.

For example, the Fair Labor Association is one of the major players dedicated to (among other things) eliminating sweat shop practices by major manufacturers. They write annual reports and investigate complaints of substandard workplaces – but I dare you to find out from their website which companies currently do well, and which act poorly. The most recent annual report online is from 2007, and their tracking charts are incomprehensible. Even typing a specific company’s name into the search engine doesn’t pull out any tangible information.

From FLA website

Here’s another: let’s say you wanted to support responsible businesses by investing in stocks or a mutual fund comprised entirely of socially responsible companies. One of the most popular indexes is the Domini 400, created by a New England-based group called KLD. It consists of publicly traded American companies that have met certain standards of social and environmental excellence … so wouldn’t it be great to see which companies are included in the 400?

Well, you can’t – at least, not without ponying up some cash. You have to buy a paid subscription to KLD in order to receive their index lists – and if you just want a simple yes/no about one particular company, you have to e-mail a general “info” mailbox and sit around waiting for a reply. Even if you buy today’s list, you won’t be notified of future additions or removals from the index – for that, you have to pay an additional fee to subscribe to a daily constituents list.

What’s worse is that KLD’s criteria for including companies on the “responsible” list is influenced more by reputation and Internet buzz than by doing actual inspections or any other investigative legwork. Some companies have an enormous target on their backs – like Nike, who has been dismissed from and later reinstated to the index - even as they use the exact same factories and labor force as companies like Timberland, who is widely recognized as one of the most socially conscious companies around. Under these circumstances, a company may benefit more from hiring a sharp PR agency than to whole-heartedly commit to social responsibility.

From Patagonia website

(Tangent #1: I don’t mean to pick on KLD specifically – they’re probably no better or worse than most other agencies. They just happened to be the subject of a very insightful New York Times piece I found, which you can read here for a more detailed account.)

(Tangent #2: The story of Nike’s relationship with social watchdog groups could be a whole series of posts, if not an entire book. They’ve actually made tremendous changes since their much-publicized failings of the mid-1990s, and now they’re often listed among the most eco- and socially-conscious companies in the world by some agencies. Other groups still consider them the corporate devil for various reasons, some of which are probably legitimate. And that’s about as far as I’m going to wade into that particular quagmire.)

I mean … this shouldn’t be so difficult, should it? Let’s say you’re thinking about plunking down $100 for a pair of shoes, and want to know if Company X has a solid sense of corporate responsibility: I’m no closer to having a good resource to give you than I was when I first started digging into this stuff a few weeks ago. All we’re really left with is to Google something like “Company X corporate responsibility”, which 98% of the time will direct you to Company X’s own website.

From Patagonia website

To their credit, most companies do a great job highlighting their commitment to the environment, their charitable giving, and their various global partnerships. What you won’t see, of course, are any complaints or reports of irresponsible business practices leveled against them – so it’s hard not to feel like you’re only getting half of the story.

That’s why it’s especially impressive when a company not only does an honest assessment of itself, but openly discusses its shortcomings and limitations in a particular area. That was also supposed to be the introduction to some new videos from the Patagonia company – who, suffice it to say, are continually impressing me as I learn more about them - but for now, we’ll call this a stopping point and feature The Footprint Chronicles separately. The new segment has enough talking points to be the subject of its own discussion, which is what we’ll do in an upcoming post.


Gretchen 10/1/09, 4:55 PM  

It is frustrating, but some how it also seems not that surpising that it's so difficult. The whole process of corporations - research, manufacturing, shipping, marketing, selling and whatever else is involved in bringing a product to market - is so complex, afterall. How could learning it's social practices be easy, with so many ways that they may have an impact? It seems like a good reason to support small, local companies,(keeping things much simpler) but unfortunately that's not always practical. We can buy our food from the farmer's market, but probably not our running shoes.

It's also one of those things where we can't beat ourselves up too much for not being perfect. I'm not saying we can use the lack of information as a convenient excuse to ignore our shopping habits and just buy whatever's cheapest, but we can only do our best, know that we really are making an effort, and go from there.

I think if people could commit to buying locally and buying organic (important in my opinion) when it's an option, that would be a big step, but most people don't want to pay the extra cost. We can worry more about the lack of information and how to shop more responsibly when we're actually using the information that we already have to be responsible. Does that make sense?

Anyway, it's fascinating stuff, Donald. Thanks for bringing up these topics. Loving the footprint chronicles. And, hey, is that my local patagucci store in that pic?? The Reno outlet? I can't really tell, but it looks like it!

Btw, I was just looking around online for some new running shoes, and the shoe dog at Road Runner Sports says my perfect shoe is one of those Newtons. Ha ha! Not sure where that came from.

Notleh,  10/2/09, 2:30 PM  

Social responsibility does matter to me, but as you have said it can be extremely frustrating to determine how companies measure up. I have butted my head against this wall before and my own standard is this: until I hear something specific and verifiable about any company then I am a potential customer.

In the case of running gear, I am personally only boycotting one company: Nike. This is because of the videos of their labor law violations, environmental violations and subsequent interviews with Phil Knight. Of course, I may always change my mind if things change or new evidence comes to light.

I am sure there are companies I buy from whom do not live up to my social and moral standards...but I do not know who they are and I wish you had better luck in finding informative resources.

Anne 10/3/09, 9:51 AM  

I'm not at all surprised the quest proved more difficult, given anyone can call themselves socially or environmentally responsible. You're right, we need a non-political clearinghouse to honestly assess which companies are doing it right and which just say they are.

21stCenturyMom 10/5/09, 5:54 PM  

Peter Camejo of the California Green Party has one of the most successful socially responsible funds.

OH NO! I just found out he died. I missed that somehow.

Anyhow there is a Camejo group that vets companies according to your criteria and builds a portfolio for you

They must know how to do this stuff.

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