As much as the Green Festival is a celebration of sustainable solutions, it’s also one giant green shopping mall. Fortunately, the festival, co-hosted by Global Exchange and Co-op America, screens all its vendors so festival-goers can feel confident their purchases are supporting companies doing their best to keep the planet healthy. But what about the rest of the time? How is the average consumer supposed to know which companies are really sustainable and which ones are harming the earth?
The first thing to come to grips with, said Victoria Kreha, the Responsible Shopper coordinator for Co-op America, is that very few companies are 100% pure. Most have committed a sin of one kind or the other against sustainability or social justice, she said, speaking on a panel entitled, “Seven Rules of Shopping for a Better World.” Fortunately, Co-op America has researched thousands of companies, and shoppers can reference their National Green Pages to learn more about specific organizations and find products that best align with their own values.
Another panelist, Ellis Jones, a sociology professor at University of California, Davis, and author of the Better World Shopping Guide, researched a slew of companies’ practices and impacts, by studying reams of data from organizations as varied as Business for Social Responsibility to the Human Rights Campaign to the Union of Concerned Scientists. From that information he compiled a ranking system which grades companies’ environmental and social behavior on a simple A to F scale.
Though his book offers comprehensive information on the companies, his website includes many of those rankings, for industries from audio equipment and energy bars, to toilet paper and tea. The site also includes a list of the 10 best companies overall (at the top: Seventh Generation, Working Assets, and Eden Foods), the 10 worst (at the bottom: Exxon Mobil, Kraft, Wal-Mart), and the 10 “small but beautiful” (including Shorebank, Dr. Bronner’s, and Kettle Foods).
Jones’ website also lists the top 10 industries in which consumers should consider making changes. These are the places where a consumer’s choice can have the greatest impact. At the top of the list: your bank. Next: your gasoline company, your supermarket, and the retail stores you frequent.
Both Jones and Kreha acknowledged that it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the prospect of evaluating each and every company you buy from, once you realize how many purchasing decisions you make every day, much less every year. Take it slowly, they advised. Think of it as a long-term project. You can start by simply deciding to avoid the worst companies. Then consider making one or two changes, adding more as your budget and energy level allow. “Come up with a long-term strategy,” Jones said. “Don’t burn out.”