Politicized Purchases


Buyers Research If Companies Lean To Left or Right


By Lynn N. Duke

NYT Regional Newspapers



When Rachel Moreno goes shopping, she has two lists: one for the items she needs and one for the merchants she’ll patronize.


She’s looking for vendors who contribute to Democratic candidates, support fair trade policies, are gentle with the environment and fair to their workers.


Moreno is one of a growing number of shoppers who are using their wallets to back up their political beliefs. And voting with your wallet can be as broad or as narrow as an individual wants to make it.


“I was surprised at how many places I was shopping were red,” said Moreno, a graphic designer from Southern California.


Researching individual companies has become easier in recent years with the advent of websites like BuyBlue.org, OpenSecrets.org, thegreenguide.com, coopamerica.org, politicalmoneyline.com and, in hard copy, The Blue Pages.


BuyBlue.org has grown rapidly since it was founded by a group of shell-shocked Democrats after the 2004 election.


“While everyone was pulling their hair out, we said ‘Now what?’,” said Martha Ture, a co-founder of BuyBlue.org. “We realized if you were a progressive, a liberal or a moderate, you wouldn’t be well-represented in this administration or its courts, so what do you have left? Your wallet.”


BuyBlue.org started out reporting campaign contributions made by a company’s three top executives and officers, and their spouses. Contributions from rank and file employees are not counted. Contributions from political action committees associated with the company also are tallied. PACs are commonly used to skirt campaign finance laws prohibiting corporations from contributing directly to politicians. Based on those contributions companies were ranked either red for Republican or blue for Democrat.


In barely six months, BuyBlue logged more than one million visitors and has been growing ever since. Its mission statement reflects the direction of that expansion:


“We believe in a triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. BuyBlue.org uses our power as consumers to vote with our wallets, supporting businesses that abide by sustainability, workers' rights, environmental standards, and corporate transparency.”


OpenSecrets.org – a source for some of BuyBlue’s research data –  also helps consumers sort out which companies might lean more towards their political beliefs by giving them the tools to do it themselves.


“I'm not sure how much we can say about the impact of these guides. That's hard to measure,” Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, said in an email. “We do think citizens are hungry for more information than they can get from 15-second campaign ads. And we think our nonpartisan website, OpenSecrets.org, is an excellent way for voters to learn about the politics of the companies that make the products they buy, in addition to being a place to find out more about the money that may influence the people they elect.”



While there isn’t a similar site for so-called red voters, there’s nothing stopping them from persuing BuyBlue or similar sites looking for companies that line up with their politics. Certainly, some conservative or religious organizations issue boycotts or spending adviroires from time to time.


And since conservatives have had a firm grip on political power, they’re perhaps less inclined to be activists.


“Conservatism as a whole tends to favor things as they are,” said Josh Greenberg, research assistant professor in the department of history and art history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “They’re policing against people who want to change things. But there’s a sense of powerlessness on the blue side of the spectrum, which may change where they spend their money.”


Sometimes political contributions aren’t a clear measure of a company’s intentions. Often large corporations play both sides of the aisle. For example, in the 2004 presidential election, four of the top 10 donors to both John Kerry and George W. Bush were the same, according to the Center for Public Integrity.


It’s also difficult to gauge the impact of these sites on real world politics because often the information is filtered down through third parties.


“I think the onumber of people making decisions after looking at these numbers  is relatively small,” said Albert May, associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “The data is used in any number of ways. Some groups use it to do studies, various activist groups use it; most of it goes out from groups in public campaigns” to support their candidate or cause.


Others think the trend toward voting with your wallet is growing.


“Sites like BuyBlue are part of a larger movement,” said California Assembly member Loni Hancock, a Democrat. “Many people in this country know that how they spend their money is the most important way they can influence what goes in the world.


“People deeply appreciate being able to put their money where their values are, and in a busy world where people don’t have time to research every company themselves, these sites provide a great resource for people to make powerful decisions.”


And some people use these resources to make small decisions that they hope will add up.


The Blue Pages was published in March, and soon after Carol Pott saw a woman in the local grocery story using the book going brand-on-brand all the way down her list.


“When we put it together, we were advocating for big-ticket items,” said Pott, managing editor at PoliPoint Press, and chief architect of the guide. “But this woman told me it’s a resource she and her friends use every day.”


Pott said she’s pleased with the book’s sales, which passed 11,000 in less than three months and pushed it into a second printing.


Technology is close to making that task even easier, according to Kevin Danahar, co-founder of the Global Exchange, an international human rights organization.


“Eventually your PDA or cell phone will be able to scan the bar code on products and tell you how it rates, in terms of fair trade, labor, environment, and any number of issues,” Danahar said.


That will be a boon to people for whom voting with their wallets is about more than just politics.


Moreno said just as important as a company’s political affiliation is how it measures up on issues like fair trade, employee equality, corporate responsibility and the environment.


“If I’m buying a gift, I want to make sure it’s organic if possible and also fair trade,” she said. Moreno also started shopping at smaller, non-chain grocery stores to support local grocery store workers who were on strike.


“I definitely think before I make a purchase,” Moreno said. “My political beliefs influence where I shop at every turn.”