Flex Your Financial Muscle

Whether you're buying a new car or a tube of toothpaste, make sure you spend your hard-earned money with companies that invest in your community

community? A perfect example of this contradiction is the food industry. African Americans make up 14% of the U.S. population and represent 12.8% of grocery store customers. Yet, of the 126,000 major grocery stores, only a handful are black-owned. Even though we say our spending practices reflect how we perceive a company’s efforts in our community, the numbers clearly don’t add up. What actions can we take to make companies accountable to our community and how can we encourage more socially responsible firms?

First off, let’s clarify what it means to be socially responsible, particularly where African American interests are concerned. "If a company is socially responsible, that means it’s hiring people of color at every level," contends Linda Witherspoon Haithcox, manager of economic development at the NAACP’s headquarters in Baltimore. "They’re active and visible in your community and they make dollar contributions as well as in-kind products and services." Haithcox says companies that don’t advertise in black media or have outlets in black neighborhoods aren’t interested in African American consumers. For example, although New York’s Dime Savings Bank claims, in its brochure, to serve neighborhoods of "diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds," it has no branches in Harlem-despite fair lending laws that are designed to penalize banks for selectively excluding certain neighborhoods. "If you have to leave your community to take advantage of a special price or sale, then that means your community is not valued by that corporation and your dollars are taken for granted," Haithcox adds.

As part of the NAACP’s Economic Reciprocity Initiative (ERI), Haithcox oversees the organization’s Consumer Choice Guides and Report Cards (see "Money Talks," June 1999). ERI companies are rated in various categories and then graded cumulatively from A through F on their overall performance. Haithcox hopes consumers will refer to these guides when they want to select a telecommunications firm or lodging facility, the focus of the two current guides. She says the NAACP recommends consumers stop purchasing from any company that receives a grade of D or lower. In addition to a company’s overall grade, consumers should consider its ratings in individual categories. "Many firms receive fairly decent grades in the employment, philanthropy and deployment areas, but the real differences are in the contracting and business development areas. Marketing and advertising are also important areas. Ratings in these categories really how how interested companies are in doing business with African Americans."

In some firms, the reports have served as a catalyst for change. On the lodging industry side, companies such as Cendant, Promus and Choice International Hotels have signed pledge agreements with the NAACP, committing themselves in writing to improving their diversity policies and practices. Cendant says its top spot in this year’s report was a direct result of the poor grade it received in the prior year’s lodging report. "We were obviously very concerned about the D grade we received in 1997 and we worked very hard to improve it," explains Scott Anderson, executive vice president of

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