The Web Watchdog

Online shopping with a soul

| November / December 2005

Socially responsible shopping, which necessitates knowing company personnel practices and environmental track records, can be a full-time occupation. For every well-known corporate sinner (Enron) and saint (Costco), there are hundreds of other businesses controlling billons of dollars that largely escape public scrutiny.

The founders of aim to fill in the blanks. The Web site ranks corporations in five different categories -- such as 'social responsibility' and 'healthy environment' -- on a five-point scale. Bed Bath & Beyond, for instance, receives a perfect five for 'business ethics,' but just one and a half for 'fair workplace.' Consumers can pick the categories most important to them, access the information for free, and order products via the Alonovo site.

People exercise 'an incredible amount of power' when they spend money, says site founder George Polisner, who spent 12 years working for the Oracle Corporation. Spending money is transferring power, he says.

At present, data for the ratings are culled primarily from KLD Research & Analytics, a company that promotes socially responsible investing. But Polisner expects eventually to incorporate information from other sources as well.

In addition to educating consumers, Alonovo dedicates 20 percent of its revenues (not just profits) to the charity of a customer's choosing. When the company started testing its site online in August, there were 58 nonprofit groups, including the Children's Defense Fund and, from which to choose.

Alonovo wants to avoid politics-unlike and other organizations that seek to shift dollars from companies that behave poorly. The name itself, in fact, is taken from a Latin word that means 'nurturing change.' 'We were struggling with names that would not feed into any political polarization,' Polisner notes, adding that consumers do need to consider factors beyond cost. 'If I go into Wal-Mart and buy the cheapest toaster I can buy, is it really the cheapest toaster in terms of the total cost to society?' he asks.

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