Next time your dorky mom comes in after stopping for groceries on her way home from an eight-hour battle with her stressful job and her harassing boss, and she asks you to put away the yucko Shredded Wheat, say, "Like, I hope you don't actually expect me to eat that stuff when there are better products on the market like Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes.''
And when Mom realizes you're serious, she'll probably get all, "I'm not letting you spend my hard-earned money on junk food.''
Now comes the fun part. "But Mom, this chart in Mother Jones shows that RJR Nabisco, makers of Shredded Wheat, has a poor record on the environment. But Kellogg, which makes Fruit Loops, gets straight A's."
Is this what Students Shopping for a Better World is all about? Creating a kind of eco-Jugend squad of smart-aleck kids armed with facts to prove that they know best? Burdening working parents with yet another obstacle in the course of daily life?
It's all this and much, much more.
Sure, the chart isn't perfect, but it is an attempt to wrestle kids' minds away from advertising and toward thinking. It's a simple put- your-money-where-your-values-are kind of formula devised by the Council on Economic Priorities.
This isn't just something the council cooked up in their mad social experimenters' kitchen. It is based on a six-month survey they conducted on teenagers' values showing, among other things, that 75 percent of teens surveyed consider the environment the most important social issue, followed by opportunities for women and minorities, and disclosure of information. Although the council says that hundreds were questioned, the book does lean heavily on quotes from teen advisers in such social backwaters as Berkeley, California, where then-sixteen-year-old Leah Hickey said, "If I found out that a product I regularly used had been tested on animals, I would not use the product.''
Of course, there are plenty of kids around who couldn't care less if Nike has a poor record of placing minorities on its board as long as Spike Lee makes the shoes look cool. And kids so hooked on Oreos that they won't switch to Newman's Own Popcorn no matter how many Corporate Conscience Awards the company earns.
Adults come in many flavors, too. There are hypocritical adults who wear fur coats to go to The Body Shop for cruelty-free products. And adults with screwed-up health priorities who eat Rainforest Crisp cereal and smoke. And even adults who wear Esprit clothes because, given a choice, they'd rather shop at a company whose values they share.
But let's accept the stereotype of conservative age and liberal youth. Let's say parents are the hardworking but morally lazy bums in this shopping drama and kids are the idealistic, socially responsible but fiscally naive ones. What can they teach each other?
Parents can point out the economic realities of the world. That the United States is competing with companies in countries that don't share our values, countries where the progress of women and minorities is not even on the agenda. That we're competing with countries so poor that they welcome a polluted sky as a sign of work. That rating companies strictly on social policy ignores companies whose shrewd economic policies create the wealth that makes it possible for us to choose between The Gap and Liz Claiborne. And that if groups with these values can create pressure on companies, then so can groups with other values, such as right-wing Christian groups.
Can you spell: c-o-m-p-l-i-c-a-t-e-d?
But the teenager as social agent also has more than buying power to bring to the table. Any parent knows the joy of seeing the world anew through a child's eyes. As you get older and your ideas harden, who better than your own child to say, "Are you sure Shredded Wheat is so hot?''
The chart here may arm teenagers with only one side of a complicated picture, but if it gets them thinking about what and why they buy rather than being remote-controlled consumer zombies, then that's a plus for us all.
Maybe the chart does make a strange case for Fruit Loops. But remember, Mom and Dad, after a discussion of how "bad" cereals can happen to "good" companies, you can say: "Now eat your Kellogg's Special K. It meets your minimum daily social requirements."
Alice Kahn is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.
SHOPPING FOR A BETTER WORLD Making the grade--an explanation of the ratings
The four categories fall in the following order: environment, minorities, women, and disclosure. Grades are based on information from the companies, public documents, and advisers who are experts in the categories. For a fuller explanation, see Students Shopping for a Better World.
A= Strong companywide environmental programs; at least three minorities on board of directors or among top officers; at least four women on board of directors or among top officers; provides up-to- date, useful material on its social programs.
C= Mixed record or only moderate environmental effort; two minorities on board or among top officers; two women on same; provides some information.
F= Poor record of major violations, accidents, and/or lobbying against environmental policies; one or no minorities on board or among top officers; one or no women on same; provides only basic information.
I= Not enough information for a grade.
Grades are in the following category order: environment, minorities, women, disclosure.
Best--General Mills: CAAA; Kellogg: AAAA; Quaker Oats : CAAA; Seventh Generation: ACAA; Stonyfield Farm : ACAA
Worst--American Home Products: FFCA; Borden: FACA; Philip Morris : FAAF; RJR Nabisco : FICF
Best--Esprit: AAAA; Levi Strauss: CIAA; Lost Arrow: AFAA ; NaNa Trading Co.: AFAA; Sara Lee: CCAA; Seventh Generation: ACAA
Worst--LA Gear: IIFF; Land's End: IIFF; Liz Claiborne: IIAF; Nike: CFCA; Reebok International: CIFF; Russell: CIFF
Best--Carter-Hawley: ACAA; Dayton-Hudson: AAAA; Nordstrom AAAA
Worst--Genesco: CIFC; JC Penney: CICF; The Limited: IIAF; US Shoe: IIFF
Best--Rhino Records: AAAA; Sony: AACA; Time Warner: CAAA
Best--Colgate-Palmolive: AAAA; Johnson & Johnson; CAAA; Tom's of Maine: ACAA
Worst--Pfizer: FICF; RJR Nabisco: FICF
Worst--Carter Wallace: CIFF; Unilever: CFFA
Best--Grand Metropolitan: CACA; PepsiCo: CAAA; Wendy's International: AIAC
Worst--Allied-Lyons: CCCA; Imasco: IFCF; International Dairy Queen: CFCA; McDonald's: CACC
Best--Mobil: FCCA; Phillips Petroleum: FCCA; Royal Dutch/Shell: CCFA
Worst--Sun Company: FIFF; Texaco: FFFA; USX: FFFF
Best--Aveda: AAAA; The Body Shop: ACAA; Colgate-Palmolive: AAAA; Johnson & Johnson: CAAA; Kiss My Face: ACAA
Worst--American Home Products: FFCA; Pfizer: FICF; Unilever: CFFA
Best--Aroma Vera: AAAA; Body Love Natural Cosmetics: AAAA; Estee Lauder: AIAC; Orjene Natural Cosmetics: AAAA; Rachel Perry: AAAA
Worst--American Home Products: FFCA; Carter Wallace: CIFF; Mem Co.: IIAC; Pfizer: FICF; Revlon: CIIF; Shiseido: IICF; Unilever: CFFA
Best--Aveda: AAAA; The Body Shop: ACAA; L'Oreal: CCAA; Procter & Gamble: CACA
Worst--Pfizer: FICF; Unilever: CFFA
Best--Borden: FACA; Gillette: CCCA; Halmark: CCAC; Minn. Mining &Mfg. (3M): CAAA
Worst--A.T. Cross: IIFF; Mead: FCCC
Best--Anheuser-Busch: CAAA; Ben & Jerry's: ACAA; Campbell Soup: CAAA; General Mills: CAAA; Kellogg: AAAA; Newman's Own: ACAA; PepsiCo: CAAA; Quaker Oats: CAAA; Seventh Generation: ACAA
Worst--Conagra: FICF; RJR Nabisco: FICF; TOPPS Chewing Gum: IIFF; United Biscuits: AFFF
Best--Birkenstock: ACAA; May Dept. Stores: ICAA; Stride-Rite: CIAC; Timberland: AFCA
Worst--Brown Group: IIFF; Interco: IIFF; LA Gear: IIFF; Nike: CFCA; Reebok International: CIFF; US Shoe: IIFF; Wolverine World Wide: IICF
Best--Cambpell Soup: CAAA; Clorox: AACA; Coca-Cola: CAAA; General Mills: CAAA; Newman's Own: ACAA; PepsiCo: CAAA; Quaker Oats: CAAA