Buying Green

Co-op America’s Socially Responsible Approach to Spending
1998 Jay Mallin

More Americans are discovering their economic muscles. Co-op America wants to show people how to flex them.

“Our mission is to create a more just and sustainable society by using economic power,” says Alisa Gravitz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based group. “Our key role is to help Americans shape a better future by wielding their purchasing and investing power.”

“They want to bring about awareness,” says Jim Lee, chief executive officer of Texas-based Hummers, Inc., which makes a variety of wood, glass and pottery products. “The number one message for them is that you have to stop and think, that every single day when you buy a product, you’re voting for the kind of future that we will have.”

An estimated 40 to 50 million Americans—about a quarter of the adult population—are now making value-based choices about what they buy. As a result, Gravitz sees her 15-year-old organization as more vital than ever. Co-op America offers consumer tips, contacts and strategies on key social and environmental issues. “We realized a growing segment of the population was willing to change its spending habits,” says Elizabeth Elliott McGeveran, the group’s managing director. “But what consumers needed was information about a wide variety of products and services.”

Its magazine, Co-op America Quarterly, takes on different subjects each issue, from sweatshops to sustainable forests, and helps consumers find services and organizations they might find acceptable. “Boycott Action News,” a regular feature, discusses the bigger, most strategic boycotts. An annual insert tracks a wide spectrum of major corporate boycotts.

Kristen Copham, president of Message!Products, a Minnesota company that produces checks from recycled materials, says Co-op America is often out front on many issues and trends. “They were among the first in the anti-tobacco campaign,” she says. “Another one was the sweat shops. And that mattered to us because we do have some products that are created outside of the United States.”

Co-op America, with 25 staffers, works with grassroots and national organizations to develop many of its strategies. The group recently joined with 11 environmental organizations to create the WoodWise Consumer Initiative, emphasizing sustainable wood use. To help reduce the appetite that has made America the foremost consumer of lumber and wood fiber products, the organization developed a series of conservation-based instructional guides, while offering a directory filled with alternative resources that promote sustainable forestry.

For activists, the collaboration can be invaluable. “We appreciate the role of Co-op America in bringing together a range of organizations and trying to reach new audiences, not just the already converted environmental community,” says Dan Smith of American Forests, a forest protection group. “This is a missing link in the chain, to have effective consumer influence to help implement forest management practices.”

Co-op America is also spearheading a letter-writing campaign to convince Home Depot to carry certified, sustainably-harvested lumber. “We want to encourage people who are willing to take a little extra time to send a letter or walk into a store and tell management, ‘I’m a consumer who’s willing to purchase these things and I’d like to see them on your shelves,’” says Gravitz.

Socially-responsible investing has grown from $639 billion in l995 to $1.2 trillion today. To channel at least a portion of that into green industries, the group offers a shopping investment program. Through its on-line service, investors can track the monthly performance of 60 designated mutual funds, and be steered through the maze of CDs, IRAs, loan funds and money markets.

“We see ourselves as a gateway, really, to both sides of the economy,” says Russ Gaskin, who manages Co-op America’s Business Network. “On the demand side, we work with the consumers. On the supply side, we have direct contact with the businesses. Once the business is approved, we help it gain access to a national marketplace of consumers who want to support socially responsible business.”

As part of its financial investment service, Co-op America publishes quarterly reports with the latest news in green investments. For those new to stocks and bonds, a series of how-to guides is also available. So far, the organization has helped members steer more than $70 million into socially-responsible investments.

To make industry measurably more green to investors, Co-op America works with Fortune 500 companies through CERES, a nonprofit coalition of investor and environmental organizations. Among its other efforts, the coalition has led the way in establishing standardized reporting practices by which investors, shareholders and the
general public can measure a corporation’s environmental performance.

Co-op America is also involved with small to mid-size businesses, providing technical assistance, including marketing materials. “Small business is a huge economic engine, the backbone of our society,” says Gravitz. “There’s enormous potential for it to be a major driver toward sustainability.”

Those businesses that meet the organization’s criteria are included in the National Green Pages, Co-op America’s version of the Yellow Pages. The directory, with a national distribution of more than 100,000, is a compendium of environmentally- and socially-responsible businesses, and offers more than 10,000 products and services nationwide—from low-flow faucets to organically grown apple butter. The Green Pages are also on the web at http://www.greenpages.org.

“Human beings invented the economy in order to make life better for human beings,” says Gravitz. “And we’ve got an economy that’s very far away from that general principle.”