Conversely, people will steer away from companies they believe are tainted, often for years after any real problems may have been corrected. Exxon has never quite emerged from the stain of the oil spill in Prince William Sound 12 years ago. Nike has become the villain of many a global morality play because of reported abuses in the company's Vietnamese assembly factories. Texaco vaulted into this club of outcasts when reporters discovered recordings of racist banter among top managers. Wal-Mart was emerging from the Kathie Lee Gifford brand sweatshop scandal, when the company was hit by evidence of similar problems with suppliers in the Far East.

Of course, some consumers are more tolerant of environmental and social abuses than others are. Your average Wal- Mart shopper is probably more interested in a company's prices than in its practices, but certain subgroups' insist- ence on organic, nongenetically modified, environmentally friendly, and sweatshop-free products is almost cliché.
One might postulate that the outdoorsy types and the Birkenstock-and-ponytail-wearing crowd would give their suppliers of choice a real boost in the fight to be compassionate about the earth and its workers. But like so many assumptions in this area, it often falls apart in the real world.

Take Vancouver-based Mountain Equipment Co-op. The company sells its Brio Crag backpacks and Farmer Jane Wetsuits through five stores across Canada, as well as via catalogs online and off. Not exactly a vast empire, yet MEC reported $150 million in sales last year, and nearly 1.5 million Canadian adults are members. Its top officers - including chief financial officer and "senior manager of sustainability" Rick Kohn - lack no enthusiasm for the challenge of acting green and treating employees well.