Many of us are looking for ways to extend our activism into our purchasing power. These days, there are many apps and websites that can help us navigate those choices.
Lately, I've seen a few mentions of Goods Unite Us - an app that claims to help us support campaign finance reform. “We run political background checks on brands and companies, so you don’t have to” is how they describe their service. Sounds good so far, but I have some questions. Like, is it really as comprehensive as a background check? Is it reliable? Where do they get their data? And what about factors other than campaign contributions? Since I’m always looking for ways to walk the walk, especially when it comes to money and Socially Responsible Investing, I decided to check it out.
When it comes down to it, Goods is an app that scores brands and companies by their political contributions. Their rating scale runs from -100 to 100, with 100 being “best.” It favors companies that make little to no contributions to the two major parties, or who give to progressive candidates and PACs. They also favor contributions to Democrats over Republicans, so if you are a Republican, this app probably isn’t for you…or at least would require additional due diligence. (They are rolling out a way to shop “Dem-free”, so Republicans stay tuned.)
I dove right in and looked-up my arch nemesis, Comcast. Feeling smugly certain their score would be -100, I was stunned to see that it’s a 30. A 30!? The company that actively advocated for the undoing of Net Neutrality? The company that threatened to sue Philadelphia over pay-equity legislation? The company that is so superior, their employees get right-of-way crossing the street?! (Can you tell I have feelings about them?)
I couldn’t find more details on the Goods website, so I turned to Open Secrets. It seems that Comcast’s score comes from the fact that, in the 2015–2016 election cycle, they donated more heavily to Democrats than Republicans. However, close to $7 million of that can be tied to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, Comcast’s hometown. If you take that spending out, their top donations went to Republicans, and for the 2017–2018 cycle so far, their contributions also lean Republican.
So how partisan is this scoring process? And what about all that other stuff? I don't want to support a company with crappy business practices just because they donate to Democrats. I decided to compare Comcast to two more companies — AT&T (another telecom company like Comcast) and CVS, a company favored by socially responsible investors.
AT&T first: they get a score of -74. It wasn’t level of donation that led to that score — their 2016 cycle donations totaled $11,691,030 compared to Comcast’s $12,811,300. That should lead to a better score than Comcast. However, just like Comcast supported the Democratic Convention, AT&T heavily supported the 2016 Republican Convention. Once you move past that, AT&T has a surprising donation history. In the 2016 cycle, they also donated $1.5 million to the Democratic Convention and more to Bernie Sanders than Comcast did. So far in the 2018 cycle, they’ve donated to both Republican and Democratic committees, a well as Doug Jones, Beto O’Rourke, and Claire McCaskill. Their number one donation so far this cycle is to One Vote at a Time, a “ group of a female filmmakers who create campaign ads for progressive candidates without the means to make their own.” That doesn’t sound like a -74 to me. How big a role does partisan contributions play in this process? Isn’t helping progressive candidates supposed to help your score?
Next I looked at CVS to see how responsible business practice influences the score. Turns out, not at all.
After the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (aka, the biggest political catastrophe in recent history next to the election of Donald Trump), CVS was one of the few companies to use their tax break as the bill supposedly intended. Rather than give their executives raises through chunks of cash or stock buy backs (which increase the value of outstanding shares, most of which are owned by those executives…ka-ching), CVS decided to give their employees raises and invest in new product lines for their customers. They also highlight healthy snacks over junk food, participate in a safe drug disposal program, and stopped selling tobacco products in 2015.
So how did Goods Unite Us score CVS?
-41, seemingly because their 2016 cycle political contributions leaned Republican 51% to 49%, even though they only contributed a total of $860,428 in donations. That’s about 1/16th of Comcast’s contribution level for the same cycle. That tells me that the Goods Unite Us scoring system puts more emphasis on the party a company gives to than the amount they give. I don’t see how this helps us advocate for an end to campaign finance.
One can (and they do) make the argument that Democrats are more likely to pass campaign finance reform than Republicans, which would explain the partisan scoring. And to be fair, Goods states (way down on the “About Us” page) that they do not factor things like sustainability -they are pure campaign finance. But I only learned all that after I started using the app, and probably wouldn’t have made it that far if I hadn’t been so surprised by the Comcast, AT&T, and CVS scores. But it seems like this partisan tilt has taken on more importance than the actual amount donated, and that seems to be the opposite of what Goods is trying to accomplish.
So what’s the take away?
Basically, if your single issue is campaign finance, then this could be your thing, but you definitely need to do more research. This is NOT an app that will do a full “background check.” If you are looking for a one-stop-shop to tell you which companies espouse people- and planet-friendly policies, this won’t do it. But, then again, should it?
Just as we need to flex our critical thinking muscles when it comes to information, policy, news, and candidates, we also need to dig deeper and ask additional questions about the companies we do business with. One app is a good start, but it’s nowhere near where our work should end.