EarthTalk: How Can We Convince Corporations to Act Responsibly Toward the Environment?

Dear EarthTalk: How can ordinary people convince corporations to behave more responsibly toward the environment? -- James B., Bridgeport, CT

Beyond the simple exercising of one's own purchasing power, there are many actions consumers can take-and organizations and resources available to help-to pressure companies to green up their ways.

A good first step is to research the environmental records of companies involved in the industries that matter to you. The websites and evaluate companies according to various "green" criteria. And Co-Op America makes available online its Guide to Researching Corporations, which points to information on everything from corporate product safety records to animal testing policies to activities that impact everything from rainforests to the air quality in minority neighborhoods.

Co-Op America also works at the cutting edge of consumer activism, pushing companies into "doing well by doing good." Its "Adopt-A-Supermarket" campaign uses the power of individuals to pressure grocery stores into carrying more "Fair Trade" items, products including coffee and chocolate made by companies that commit to sustainable environmental practices and guarantee workers fair wages. At Co-Op America's website you can download a campaign guide that provides background on the issue and tips on how to form an "adoption team" of concerned citizens that makes regular visits to educate store managers.

Another effort, "Be Safe PVC," conducted in partnership with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, encourages major companies to phase out their use of the highly toxic plastic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They've already convinced Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Victoria's Secret, and Bath and Body Works to phase out PVC in their packaging.

Other Co-Op America successes include persuading Sempra Energy, the parent company of Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric, to abandon plans to build coal-fired power plants in Nevada and Idaho, and convincing the U.S. Postal Service to withdraw a proposal to deliver all residential mail in blue plastic bags, similar to those used for newspapers.

Another group, Ecopledge, recruits consumers to sign "pledges," which demand specific improvements to companies' environmental behavior and promise to cease doing business with the firms in question if they do not make efforts to green their practices. Armed with such pledges, Ecopledge has succeeded in convincing Dell and Apple to reduce the amount of e-waste they generate, getting ConocoPhilips and BP to drop out of Arctic Power (a lobbying entity pushing to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling), and working with Staples and Office Depot to craft green-friendly paper sourcing policies.

Ecopledge is currently working on a campaign to pressure major rental car companies, including Enterprise, Hertz, Cendant and Vanguard, to buy and rent cleaner cars, an effort, they say, that would save 500 million gallons of gasoline, reduce CO2 emissions by 14 billions of pounds, and save American drivers some two billion dollars in gasoline expenses every year. They are also pressuring major meat producers, including Premium Standard Farms, Smithfield and Tyson, to clean up hog and other animal waste that is causing widespread damage to the environment and human health in their areas of operation.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at:, or e-mail:

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