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Seven Tenets of the Socially Conscious Business

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Now more than ever, socially conscious businesses offer the opportunity to express and further political ideals through consumer choices. If you go to the polls on Election Day because you care about issues like the environment, fair labor practices, and corporate transparency, you can support these political goals with your everyday purchases, too.

There are many companies trying to take advantage of this trend, but some businesses are more socially conscious than others. Here are seven tenets that define most socially conscious corporations:

1. Accessible activism. These businesses offer a product or service that's already part of your daily life. It's not about the extraneous or extravagant purchase. Instead, it's about democratizing activism: everyone buys salad dressing (Newman's Own) and office supplies (Give Something Back).

2. Competitive price points. Their products and services are not more expensive than those of non-socially conscious businesses. The goal is not to pass on the cost of supporting nonprofit organizations to the consumer, but to find a creative way to make being socially conscious affordable.

3. Community-oriented mission. These businesses provide a physical (or web) site for activism, fundraising, and community service. The goal is to create a community of customers united around a shared cause, which then can speak with a collective voice. To that end, sometimes these businesses will allow customers to direct their donations: for example, Working Assets does this through an online vote, and Blue State Coffee asks customers to vote in-store.

4. Transparency, in two ways. First, often these companies will include in their missions an upfront commitment--a certain percentage of sales or after-tax profits, usually--to support nonprofit organizations. Second, these companies will disclose how much they've given and which nonprofits have benefited. This isn't bragging -- it's demonstrating that corporations can be a transparent agent for good.

5. Education, also in two ways. First, these businesses provide information on the nonprofit organizations they support in order to educate the customer on the cause, encourage him or her to get involved, and provide the next step to doing so. Second, these businesses educate the customer on the larger power and impact--environmental or otherwise--of consumer choices.

6. Environmental sustainability. Consistent with a socially conscious mission, most of these businesses try to minimize their negative impact on the environment. Some businesses purchase carbon credits to offset their carbon footprint (through Carbonfund.org) and use eco-friendly paper products (through Greenerprinter.com).

7. Fair employee pay. These companies generally offer better employee compensation and benefits than non-socially conscious businesses.

If you would like to support these businesses but don't know where to look, begin with the organizations many of these socially conscious companies have established to separate themselves from the posers. These groups set standards governing which practices really constitute socially conscious business (and, conversely, which businesses are in it for the marketing value alone). Certified B Corporation has done a remarkable job of creating a community of businesses that adhere to standards specific to industry. 1% for the Planet takes a different approach: all of its members pledge to donate 1% of revenue to nonprofit organizations that protect the planet.

These companies emphasize philanthropy, sustainability, and customer and community involvement. They encourage and empower a new form of socially conscious consumer. In the Obama moment, let's align our ideals as citizens and our habits as consumers.