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Is Coke better than Pepsi?

The Better World Shopping Guide - 2nd Edition: Every Dollar Makes a Difference
By Ellis Jones
177 pp. New Society Publishers – Oct. 2008. $9.95.

“[This] book has been purposefully made small so that you can keep it with you in your purse, backpack, briefcase, or pocket…Whatever you do, don’t put it on a shelf!”

That’s author Ellis Jones’ advice regarding his latest edition of The Better World Shopping Guide, a handy, pocket-sized reference book intended to help shoppers make socially and environmentally responsible purchasing choices.

The book is an invaluable resource for anyone concerned about the consequences of his or her everyday buying decisions, whether from the perspectives of peak oil or climate change, animal testing, toxic waste dumping, child labor or corporate accounting scandals, to name just a few of the issues. The book systematically ranks every type of company from airlines to banks to cereal manufacturers on an A-to-F scale, and presents the information in an easy-to-follow, shopping-friendly format.

The first several pages succinctly outline the book’s origins and the methodology used to rank companies. Jones, a Ph.D. in sociology, wrote the book after doing years of research on corporate behavior—drawing on resources like the Better Business Bureau, the Center for Public Integrity and the Environmental Protection Agency—compiling the data into an extensive database and then distilling these data down into a report card-style grade for each business or product.

He felt motivated to write the book out of a realization that every dollar spent is “a vote for the world you want to live in,” but that information needed in order to make informed decisions is much harder to come by than information needed in order to assess, say, the latest presidential candidates.

After this initial bit of background, Jones proceeds to his list of the 10 best corporations (which include Clif Bar, Ben & Jerry’s and Aveda) and his list of the 10 worst. He then concisely spells out what each of the letter grades used to rank companies means. “A” companies, he writes, often “were created specifically to provide socially and environmentally responsible options for consumers,” while “F” companies “are actively participating in the rapid destruction of the planet and the exploitation of human beings.” The rest fall somewhere in-between.

The guide itself runs the gamut from airlines (with British Airways taking the lead with an A minus) to wines (with Yellow Tail, Gallo and Carlo Rossi all tying with a B minus). For each class of companies, a chart on the right ranks them all from A to F, while the page on the left provides some general buying tips and lists examples of corporate heroes and villains for that particular company category.

A few examples of corporate heroes include Toyota, which leads its industry in combating climate change; Hewlett Packard, which has a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign Equality Index; Newman’s Own, which donates all of its profits to education and charity; and Whole Foods, which is powered entirely by renewable energy.

As for corporate villains, you’ll find the usual array of big box stores, oil companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and fast food restaurants—as well as a few surprise entries that just might change the way you shop for everything from noodle soup to computer software.

The book contains plenty of interesting informational tidbits for peak oil readers. For example, did you know that New Belgium has the first ever 100 percent wind-powered brewery, or that Kettle Foods converts all of its waste oil into biodiesel?

Another nice feature of the book is the product category index located at the back, which is intended to help readers find items that they may have missed the first time through. Couldn’t find condensed milk? It’s under “Baked Goods and Baking Supplies”—as are marshmallows, corn meal and evaporated milk. Didn’t see bacon bits? They’re in the “Sugar, Spices & Sweeteners” section, which also covers syrup, honey and salt.

Jones freely admits that his guide is “far from complete,” and that readers will likely come across companies and brands in their everyday dealings that receive no mention in the book. Indeed, the present reviewer can name several such companies right offhand: TOP Food & Drug, First Mutual Bank, Black Bear Diner, Big Boy Restaurants, Taco Time and Taco del Mar, to name just a few. The book also has a couple of rather puzzling omissions of major companies (where in the heck is Denny’s?).

Set against these omissions, however, is a list of helpful, sweeping rules to follow when evaluating companies or products that do happen to fall through the cracks. If Product X is certified fair trade or organic, it gets an A or a B plus, respectively. If Company Y produces clothing or shoes, it automatically falls into the D or F category. If you know nothing at all about the company, assign it a C. Local credit unions automatically receive a B; organic and local beer breweries get an A minus; and farmers markets, food co-ops and local bakeries or vineyards all tie with a resounding A plus. In addition to laying out these general guidelines, Jones welcomes readers’ feedback on the book’s Web site: www.betterworldshopper.org.

And even if The Better World Shopping Guide is far from complete, it still does a great service to socially responsible shoppers. It doesn’t cover 100 percent of the companies and products that are out there, but it does nail quite a large percentage of them. And that’s a whole lot better than nailing zero percent of them—which is pretty much where we’d be without a convenient guide like Jones’.

For me, a chief highlight of reading this book is that is resolved, once and for all, the perennial question—debated endlessly in tongue-in-cheek TV ads from the ‘80s and ‘90s—of whether Coke is better than Pepsi. I can now safely say which is the better beverage from a social and environmental responsibility standpoint (never mind that both of them rot away our kidneys in equal measure). And you’ll know too, once you’ve read the book!

Frank Kaminski is an ardent peak oiler who participates regularly in Seattle Peak Oil Awareness (SPOA). He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.

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