Righteous Consumption

Consume. Mother Earth thanks you.Or maybe:Save the planet. Buy more stuff.Or how about:Peace, Love and Socially Responsible Mutual Funds.Sound ludicrous? Don't laugh. It may not be long before slogans like those become the rallying cry for the new environmental movement, one where capitalism meets social conscience, where consumer choices have as much weight as votes, where the world is made a better place because of -- not despite -- that almighty capitalist construct known as The Market.There are other monikers. Pocketbook activism. Cause-related marketing. Green consumerism. Whatever the nickname, the practice -- with adherents whose fervor borders on religious -- is growing faster than the hole in the ozone. Since its inception in 1990, that green market bible, The National Green Pages, has grown from listing 400 businesses to over 2,000 -- including products and services that range from politically correct investing to recycled backpacks to alternative pest control."It's voting with your dollars," says Elizabeth Eliot McGeveran, managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based Co-op America, which publishes the Green Pages. "It's the wave of the future."It's also the most curious wrinkle on the realm of activism yet. Once demonized as nothing less than the handmaiden of ecological apocalypse, consumerism has come up for retrial in recent years. The latest verdict to come down is that consumer choices can -- at least indirectly -- curb the frying of rain forests, snag a politician's ear, save a dolphin or help chip away at the multinational corporate monolith.It's a strange puree of entrepreneurialism, Boomer guilt and environmental ethics -- think Forbes with granola, think greenbacks meeting green ethics, an idea born of the '60s when mutual fund companies began promising investors they wouldn't invest in businesses involved in the arms trade.The roots are odd, the branches seemingly endless -- and the manifestations sometimes painfully dissonant. Take American Express' "Charge For Hunger" drive of years ago, in which a percentage of customers' AmEx bills went to hunger relief groups. The twisting of consumption from a possible cause into a cure for hunger must have struck some as unsettling, to say the least.Can righteous consumption save the planet? Some skeptics are calling for a reality check, reminding the well-meaning that there are other, more traditional ways of doing this troubled world a good turn. Pocketbook activism hasn't necessarily eclipsed more traditional forms of activism -- both volunteerism and charitable donations are up in recent years. But critics are quick to warn that green consumerism -- as easy and painless as writing out that check to Good Company B vs. Bad Company A -- could hurt instead of help in the long run.Walking the TalkThe way it works is simple. Say you want to do your part to save the endangered snail darter, but you're too busy to pop by the demonstration or write that letter of outrage to your congressman. Well, you can do the third best thing: spend your money with a company that supports the cause. These days they're not hard to find. Open up a copy of left-leaning news magazine Mother Jones or maybe even the Wall Street Journal and they jump out at you: Working Assets long distance, The Pax World Fund -- companies that promise to support the causes you believe in.That's what Gregory Lumm does. The UNLV junior invests in a "socially responsible" mutual fund."My parents kept saying, 'Invest, invest,'" he says. "But I had serious reservations about the whole thing because in many cases you have no idea what you're investing in. I didn't want to be lending money to big tobacco."Now Lumm can make a financial killing, so to speak, without sacrificing his conscience. His "green portfolio" invests in a handful of companies with a relatively clean environmental track record, while giving him a satisfying return on his investments."Don't get me wrong. I don't pretend like I'm saving the world by doing this," Lumm says. "But I think it's a good alternative for people who feel like investing means selling your soul."The spate of socially responsible investing companies has even spawned a cousin service. Financial advisers essentially plug would-be investors into a company that matches their moral fiber, via a questionnaire that identifies the issues closest to investors' hearts, whether it's rights in the workplace or weapons manufacturing. Thus prospective stock market gamblers can avoid unwittingly investing in Death & Destruction Inc."Looking at investment in this way, social issues are just as valid a factor in investing as any in the final analysis," says Daniel McKenna, president of Principle Profits Asset Management Inc., a financial advising service in Amherst, Mass. "Being a responsible corporate citizen and a good steward of resources will go a long way toward also having a positive financial impact."Since his company's startup in 1992, McKenna's seen a 60 percent growth in his client base, a number that doesn't astound him. Like others, he sees the turn to conscientious capitalism as the new -- and someday, only -- way to do business."It's more than a generational trend," McKenna says. "The old school way of being responsible was to make as much money as possible in the stock market, and then give to your charity of choice. What if the companies you're investing in are big tobacco companies? That's like painting the front porch while the back porch is burning."Fulfillment for SaleBut some say that much of the cause-related marketing is less about walking the talk than it is about buying the right to feel good. Critics don't deny the wisdom of choosing a green company over the array of often venal alternatives. The danger lies in the feeling it gives consumers that they are really doing something."From just a business standpoint, making people feel good about themselves is a great product," says Tom Riley, a senior analyst at Statistical Assessment Service, a non-profit organization in D.C. that scrutinizes public policy statistics."But if you fool yourself into thinking you're doing the best you can just by using one of these services, you're fooling yourself. If you're like, 'I paid my phone bill (with a green phone company), so I don't need to volunteer,' that doesn't cut it. I'm not saying these companies are scams. My question is whether they're the most efficient use of your time and money."One well-known long distance phone company, Working Assets, donates a mere 1 percent of each bill to various do-gooder organizations, as Riley points out in a recent opinion he wrote for Philanthropy magazine. As a result, a year of getting $30 phone bills would result in a total donation of only $3.60. "Most people, I think, would be embarrassed to show their 'support' for a group they truly 'believed in' by mailing them an annual check for $3.60," Riley notes.But proponents of socially conscientious spending don't claim that it's a global cure-all. Instead, they recommend it as part of a balanced activist diet that includes voting, letter-writing, and donating to charities."If someone is only doing this, they're not completing the picture," says McKenna of socially responsible investing. "It's part of an overall approach."And if cynics still aren't satisfied with what appear to be piecemeal donation policies offered by some green groups, plenty of alternatives are coming down the pipeline.Indeed, in recent years it seems a second wave of even more zealous companies have tapped into the nation's conscience. Perhaps best characterized as a sort of fiery cousin to Working Assets, Denver-based Earthtones, a long-distance phone company owned by non-profit environmental organizations, donates every penny of its profits to a cadre of environmental groups like Earth Day 2000, The Green Corps and Pesticide Watch."It began as a way to diversify our income sources," says Earthtones Director Sarah Koon. "When you get your money from the government and from business grants, there are always strings attached. Fund-raising is labor-intensive, so we decided to branch out in the green business area."This year, the result of that branching out will be about $10,000 infused directly into the group's adopted environmental organizations. In tandem with the company's uncompromising spirit, Koon herself is a staunch supporter of the idea of dollars-as-votes."We always hear about how consumers hold so much power. But you don't see that until they're making conscious decisions where to spend their money. And that can be powerful. I don't buy into the cynicism out there about green companies. If you want to be effective at making changes, you're going to have to come into more innovative ideas. And these are innovative ways of doing business."Much Bigger PictureLas Vegas groups and companies are getting their piece of the activism as well -- whether it's green pest control companies or partnerships between business and charities. Las Vegas-based Etex, listed in the National Green Pages, manufactures and leases an electric gun that zaps termite nests, an alternative to conventional, possibly harmful chemical methods."Awareness (of alternatives) is growing with more access," says Susan Bondy, Etex's chief financial officer. "It's the smaller, more forward-thinking companies that are on the forefront of this whole movement." Elsewhere, local charity Opportunity Village benefits from a partnership with Sonic Drive-Thru, which blazons the organization on their cups and place mats."Both entities benefit," says Deborah Young, Opportunity Village's director of development. "In the old days a corporation would just give a contribution to show their philanthropy. Nowadays we're realizing the picture is so much bigger than that. It involves so much more than that."


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