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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Profile #14: Alice Tepper Marlin: An Architect of Green Consuming

Air Date: Week of

Alice Tepper Marlin is the founder and president of the Council on Economic Priorities, a group which publishes their findings on leading companies and their environmental practices. These consumer ratings guidebook volumes titled Shopping for a Better World encourage people to make informed decisions about what companies they buy from and support. Amy Eddings of member station WFUV has this profile of Marlin.


CURWOOD: Every time you reach for your wallet or checkbook, you're making a decision about how the world's resources will be used, and the resulting impact on society and the environment. That's the message of Alice Tepper Marlin, Founder and President of the Council on Economic Priorities. For more than 20 years she's been a leader in promoting socially and environmentally responsible investing and consuming, and for almost a decade she has published edition after edition of what some call the Green Consumer's Bible, Shopping for a Better World. As part of our ongoing series on 25 environmental pioneers, reporter Amy Eddings of member station WFUV caught up with Ms. Marlin in Manhattan.

(A shopping basket is rolled)

EDDINGS: I'm grocery shopping with Alice Tepper Marlin. She's brought a copy of Shopping for a Better World with her, and on this sweltering, hot day in Manhattan we stop in front of the ice cream case and look up the different brands. The book grades companies from A to F on 8 issues, including environmental stewardship, the advancement of women and minorities, and charitable giving.

MARLIN: If you wanted to reach for Breyer's ice cream, for instance, you'll find in Shopping for a Better World that it's made by Phillip Morris, a company that's one of the major tobacco sellers, and earned only a D in their environmental stewardship and in charitable giving. It's a sharp contrast with an ice cream right next to it on the counter, Ben and Jerry's. It earned A in virtually every category that we rate.

EDDINGS: CEP is perhaps best known for Shopping for a Better World. When the first edition was published in 1988, the guide was the first of its kind, and with over a million copies sold it's one of the most successful. Four out of five readers told the group they changed brands based on the grades, and over the years many poorly rated companies have asked CEP for suggestions on how to improve. The book became the cornerstone for what's now called green consumerism, and Tepper Marlin believes it's a way of thinking that can have enormous clout.

MARLIN: Green consuming has to do with casting your economic vote as conscientiously as your political vote, every time you step up to the cash register. The everyday decisions we make when we purchase something affect millions of people's lives.

EDDINGS: Alice Tepper Marlin learned about that clout in the late 60s, as a securities analyst on Wall Street. Although the job was exciting, it differed wildly from her civil rights and anti-poverty work.

MARLIN: Every once in a while I would think: gee, the impact I have with my volunteer time up in Harlem is so small compared to the impact I have in the normal course of doing business on Wall Street. So I felt I'd like to be able to live my life in a way that my core work had an effect on the issues I thought were really important.

EDDINGS: In 1970, one year after it was founded, the Council on Economic Priorities published a report on the pollution control records of pulp and paper companies. The negative findings were widely reported, and within 2 years Tepper Marlin says the industry made big improvements. Similar reports on the steel, coal, oil, and nuclear power industries followed. And in 1992, CEP launched its Campaign for Cleaner Corporations, an annual list of the nation's top polluters. Many of these companies now work with the Council to clean up their environmental records. Environmentalists applaud green consumers and for changing what Americans buy, but some critics say it doesn't address the fact that Americans buy too much. Over-consumption and the strain it places on the world's resources is a growing concern of many activists, and they want the CEP to encourage people to buy less. Tepper Marlin says the group already does.

MARLIN: The reason that's not so widely known is because many organizations have that message, and what's unique about the Council on Economic Priorities message is that we give you the knowledge to empower you to cast your economic vote on social and environmental grounds.

EDDINGS: Although her job has always been challenging, Alice Tepper Marlin says the trend toward multinational corporations is making it harder for CEP to accurately track a company's social performance. She says that's because international standards vary widely on social issues like child labor, fair employment, and environmental quality. On her wish list for the future is something like a global securities and exchange commission to establish reporting and disclosure guidelines on social and environmental issues. But that's the future. Right now, it's hot and muggy, and the wish list includes something cool and refreshing. Because of Alice Tepper Marlin and the Council on Economic Priorities, we know what else we're buying when we select that quart of ice cream. For Living on Earth, this is Amy Eddings in New York.



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