The Ethics Of Soup: Grading Supermarket Shelves – For Profit

By David South

This Magazine (Canada), March-April, 1993

Where social activists have tried and failed to get Canadian corporations to change their behaviour towards the environment, labour, women and minorities, EthicScan Canada – a for-profit consulting and research firm – steps in.

Toronto-based EthicScan acts as a consultant on ethical issues to both government and private businesses and produces a guide for investors. Its latest project hit the bookstores last fall. The Ethical Shopper’s Guide to Supermarket Products rates products according to companies’ ethical performance. “EthicScan is the only company in Canada doing this,” says senior writer Joan Helsen. “Companies respond to us differently because we are – like them – a business. We have a very good reputation for doing strong research and presenting the facts.”

Non-profit groups have produced similar guides. In the US, perhaps the best known is the American Council on Economic Priorities’ Shopping for a Better World. Here in Canada, both Pollution Probe’s Green Consumer Guide and the Ontario Public Interest Research Group’s The Supermarket Tour offer educational information.

But The Ethical Shopper’s Guide is the first guide in Canada to give a product-by-product breakdown, and to detail the web of corporate ownership. It lists more than 1,200 brand-name products from baby food to soft drinks, with the manufacturer’s “grade” for each ethical category. The guide also profiles 87 companies, with an “honour roll” of 37 corporations.

All of this can be confusing. Oxo gets an F for “women’s issues” and F+ for “environmental management,” but scores A+ on “progressive staff policies” and “environmental performance.” (Apparently. “environmental management” has to do with company structures for dealing with environmental issues while “environmental performance” measures how much it actually pollutes.) What aspect of Oxo’s ethical behaviour do you reward or punish?

EthicScan’s approach fits current advertising trends. Nissan tells us it is just trying to build cars we can live with. Loblaws puts “Green” on everything from plastic garbage bags to tubes of shampoo. But once idea-starved ad copywriters move on to the next gimmick, EthicScan may find that the relationship between ethics and profit isn’t as straightforward as its grading system suggests.