Companies called to be responsible - Catholic Courier
Diocesan Pastoral Center staff members sort clothing donated to Catholic Charities Dec. 14 by the philanthropic foundation of retailer Zumiez. Diocesan Pastoral Center staff members sort clothing donated to Catholic Charities Dec. 14 by the philanthropic foundation of retailer Zumiez.

Companies called to be responsible

More than a decade ago, Father Jim Hewes made a personal rule to avoid buying anything made in China, unless it was an item he needed for health or safety.

He based this decision on China’s one-child-per-family policy, allegations of forced abortions, and other human-rights violations.

Yet Chinese-made products have been difficult to avoid, said Father Hewes, parochial vicar of Holy Ghost, St. Helen and St. Jude the Apostle parishes in Gates.

"Very often I go without a lot of stuff," he said.

It’s a sacrifice the priest said he’s willing to make in order to avoid supporting companies that violate the tenets of Catholic social teaching, including protecting human life, the dignity of the human person, human rights and the rights of workers. Father Hewes said he firmly believes that Catholics can influence multinational corporations in two main ways: in what we buy and in how we invest.

"Companies work so hard to grow businesses; why would (they) want to alienate a significant part of (the) population?" he asked.

He’s in good company. In the 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI wrote that the economy should be at the service of people, and not the other way around.

"Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end that provides a sense both of how to produce it and how to make good use of it," the pope wrote. "Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty."

There are several independent organizations dedicated to helping shoppers find out which companies may have practices that violate the dignity of human life, Father Hewes said. Shoppers also can seek out fair trade items, said Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research for Rochester’s Catholic Family Center.

"We vote with our checkbook," he said.

However, fair trade labels are not an iron-clad guarantee that the items are made in a moral manner, said Marsha Dickson, a professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware who has extensively studied fair trade issues.

For example, a Bloomberg News investigation in December uncovered allegations that suppliers in Burkina Faso used child labor to produce organic cotton that was certified fair trade and was incorporated into Victoria’s Secret underwear. The chain told Bloomberg it would investigate and said, if true, the use of child labor violated its policies.

"The trouble with certification is that sometimes there will be an audit of some sort of facility but you don’t know what is happening in between" audits, Dickson said.

The onus is on manufacturers to protect their brands and reputations by overseeing every level of their supply chains, she said, adding that it also is prudent for consumers to research a company’s policies before shopping. She noted that such research may soon become easier, thanks to a new California law called the Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires large retailers or sellers in California to disclose their efforts to combat human trafficking and slavery.

"We expect to see a lot more disclosure from corporations on their websites about what they do with human-rights issues, and some of the corporations have not disclosed before," Dickson said.

But not all fair trade organizations operate the same way. Renee Bowers, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation, said federation members commit to fair trade principles, but the federation does not certify goods as fair trade.

One of the federation’s goals is to make sure fair trade companies have face-to-face contact with the producers of their goods so they can build long-term relationships and foster community development.

"Nothing can replace buyer involvement in the production process," she said.

Investors likewise are called to be actively involved in making decisions, but the good news is that corporate communications, filings and news are readily available on the Internet, according to Father Séamus P. Finn, director of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Office for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Father Finn said faith-based investors should demand accountability from the companies they invested with or they should divest stock in companies engaged in morally objectionable practices.

"With ownership comes responsibility and rights," Father Finn said.

An example of active stock owners are the members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), a 40-year-old coalition of faith-based organizations that use their power as shareholders to encourage corporations to commit to action on social issues.

Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Coll, administrator of shareholder advocacy for Catholic Health East, said ICCR’s shareholder advocacy has yielded many positive results over the years. For instance, shareholder advocates recently got Delta Airlines to sign a code of conduct that aims to protect children from sexual exploitation by tourists.

ICCR members’ shareholder resolutions — which ask corporations to take actions on issues of concern ranging from environmental stewardship to human-rights safeguards — often are a prelude to dialogue with corporations, said Dominican Sister Patricia A. Daly, executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investing. The resolutions sometimes wind up on proxy ballots to be put to a vote by shareholders, and both Sisters Coll and Daly recommended that investors pay close attention to proxies.

Catholic investors also can choose individual stocks or mutual funds that exclude companies that violate Catholic social teaching or other moral codes. Among such mutual funds are LKCM Aquinas, Calvert, Ave Maria and Epiphany funds. Catholic investment firms, B Corporation certifications and such index funds as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and the FTSE4Good Indices likewise are independent evaluations of corporate social responsibility.

"There are many challenges consumers face when assessing the product claims of a company because it is not sufficient to rely only on the marketing and promotion materials produced by the business," said Jennifer S. A. Leigh, assistant professor of management at Nazareth College in Pittsford.

Father Finn, meanwhile, said years of research have demonstrated that investors can make good choices and still see good returns.

"The data clearly demonstrates that just because there are particular ethical screens or values in place, you are not giving up on returns," he said.

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