The Council on Economic Priorities recently celebrated the publication of Rating America’s Corporate Conscience, a consumer’s handbook for those of us who, if we can’t carry enough cash to the marketplace, would like to think we come there pulsating with the juices of social decency.

With their guide to the corporate conscience in hand, the morally scrupulous will be on alert, in the words of the council’s president Alice Tepper Marlin, to “pass up the spaghetti sauce [Progresso] made by a major weapons contractor [the Ogden Corporation].” The council “prefers Campbell’s Prego.” In this instance, as in too many others, one wishes life were simpler.

There seems to be something to be said for Prego’s proprietors, but unfortunately there does not seem to be significantly less to be said for Progresso’s. We all have the bundle of prejudices we generously call our social philosophy, and my own, while bizarre, may not be untypical of the difficulties presented by Rating America’s Corporate Conscience.

I have the requisite distaste for weapons, although thanks to the attentions of the Internal Revenue Service, I contribute far more to the Pentagon’s food and lodging than I do to my own. I also happen with almost as much despair but with rather more of my own free will to vote Democratic. Progresso’s Ogden sends 85 percent of its PAC contributions to Democratic candidates.

I am also a committed, if often delinquent, union member. Rating America’s Corporate Conscience informs us that, in 1981, an Ohio State Legislative Committee found that the pickers harvesting tomatoes for Campbell were working twelve hours a day for low wages. Although the matter was resolved last year to the satisfaction of the AFL-CIO, Campbell appears to have maintained its deafness to reproach throughout a period when I might have been eating Prego all unconscious that I was savoring the blood of the toilers.

How then strike a balance? On one side Progresso, which contracts weapons and supports the party of the common man. On the other Campbell, which treats women fairly, indulges a number of charities, and had to be persuaded quite forcibly to stop contracting child labor.

One might, of course, opt for women and for charity, but the second criterion loses considerable force with the discovery that the highest percentage of profits given to charity is registered by the Dow Chemical Company, which, as the council reminds us, has been fiercely resistant to alarms over dioxin. The choice becomes too much an agony to linger with further; there is no way to keep the conscience clean except buy my sauce from one of those Village grocers who bottle it at home and pray never to find out that he has locked an undocumented alien to the vat in his cellar.

The council deserves our sympathy for attempting to grade American corporations for a conscience that for them, as for the rest of us, turns out to be a mixed bag. Sara Lee is a striking case in point. Here is a company that not only delights our palates but allots 1 percent of its profits to programs “for the economically disadvantaged.” And yet it had no sooner taken over the Hanes textile plants when it found itself in stubborn conflict with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Four years after these complaints were resolved, 89 percent of the Hanes workers sampled in a poll judged it a worse place to work than it had been before. An impressive quotient of corporate sacrifice for charity to the economically disadvantaged had come from others of the economically disadvantaged.

But then, the more delicate the calibrations, the worse the confusions in the measurement of conscience. There are many things to be said in conscience’s favor and not least as an instrument of convenience. Of all the distractions that oppress us, it seems to be one of the easiest to lay aside.

Copyright © 1987 Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

February 26, 1987