Conscience in the Cart

Activists have been trying to influence corporate behavior through the economic clout of consumer spending for decades, but now a new generation of socially conscious web-based services is taking the work online. The services, which have sprung up in the wake of the 2004 elections, are designed to help mainstream consumers align their purchasing power with their progressive values. The sites share the aim of bringing together and packaging freely available but otherwise difficult-to-access data about corporate behavior for easy digestion by consumers.

online shopping © Elizabeth Prager

Alonovo to the Rescue

“We felt there was a lot of frustration in America and a lot of economic power that wasn’t being expressed,” says George Polisner, CEO of the green shopping site Alonovo.com, which debuted in mid-2005. The website serves as an e-commerce-enabled front-end to Amazon.com’s vast product catalog, but users get a lot more than product details when browsing through the site. They can also learn how manufacturers stack up in five different areas (social responsibility, fair workplace, healthy environment, customer/societal focus and business ethics). The data is derived from the research of KLD Research and Analytics, an aggregator of social responsibility information. Alonovo.com in turn shares 20 percent of any revenue it generates through commissions on Amazon.com sales with nonprofits as chosen by users.

“We went out of the gate knowing that it was incredibly important in order to make this idea fly to gain a very large mainstream or centrist consumer base, as opposed to just the green consumer segment,” says Polisner. So far, the site has attracted only about 150,000 unique visitors and 15,000 registered users. “For real success, we need millions of people shopping while considering corporate behavior as a factor in the purchase selection,” he adds.

Blue Buy You

Another emerging consumer purchasing website is BuyBlue.org, a non-profit volunteer-run endeavor launched just two months after the 2004 election. Visitors to the site can judge the political biases of 500 major corporations through their corporate campaign contributions. The site, which celebrated its two millionth visitor recently and attracts as many as 5,000 visitors each day, also tracks and displays more general information about companies’ social and environmental responsibility records.

Deborah Schneider, a political organizer in San Francisco, first heard about BuyBlue when a friend emailed her a link soon after the 2004 presidential election. She was hooked right away. “It’s so valuable to access all that information in one convenient place,” she says. “And it produces some surprising information. For instance, I found out via BuyBlue that Safeway contributes primarily to Republicans, so I stopped shopping there.”

Only Just the Beginning

As one of the leading advocates of aligning values with purchasing power, UC Berkeley Professor Dara O”Rourke is as bullish as anyone on the potential social and environmental benefits of sites like Alonovo and BuyBlue. But he considers the current offerings to be embryonic at best. “Right now we’re at very early stages of what is going to be a huge movement of new types of consumer information and empowerment,” says O”Rourke. “In my view, the sites out there give very incomplete information about the overall impact of a firm.”

According to O”Rourke, recent studies show that as many as 80 percent of American consumers say they would prefer to shop according to their values, yet only approximately three percent actually do so. “There is a chasm between stated concerns and values and our purchasing practices,” he says.

O”Rourke believes that sites with more comprehensive data will be the wave of the future. Betsy Power, a business director with the Natural Capital Institute, agrees, and she adds a caveat: “Unfortunately, it isn’t always apparent what the underlying information source is on these sites, or what the criteria is based on,” she says.

New entries in the field appear frequently. Consumer Reports recently launched Greenerchoices.org, which rates products from cars to electronics. Co-op America’s Responsible Shopper site includes detailed reports on companies that sell consumer products. ZeeDive.com, launched this November, is somewhat different in that the website itself has “gone green.” The company pledges to donate an unspecified percentage of profits from all “powered items’ to three nonprofit groups battling climate change.

For consumers like Deborah Schneider, who uses five or six green shopping sites besides BuyBlue, the sooner the sector matures the better. “Once you get consumers involved, companies will act a hell of a lot faster,” she says.

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