Rubbing Elbows with Socially Conscious Entrepreneurs – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

As our financial infrastructure implodes and home foreclosures pile up, the reputation of the Wall Street and the business community has never been worse. What an interesting time, then, for a conference that brings together entrepreneurs and companies who are in business for goals that go far beyond making profit. I recently attended the Social Venture Network’s (SVN) fall gathering in San Diego. The National Consumers League has been a passionate advocate of corporate social responsibility. The League’s President Emeritus, Linda Golodner, sits on the International Standards Organization’s committee that is formulating guidelines for companies who strive to be socially responsible. We at NCL see as part of our mission pushing companies to adopt socially responsible practices – e.g., treating workers fairly, minimizing environmental impacts, giving back to the communities where they do business, abiding by and even exceeding health and safety laws, and making safe products.

SVN has been around since 1987. The founders say that a book by economist and former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, Tales of a New America (1987), inspired  them to bring together business leaders committed to social change and to merging social values with their business goals. Familiar brands like Ben and Jerry’s and the Calvert Social Investment Fund were early SVN backers.

Today SVN’s membership includes hundreds of business who share a dedication to innovative social enterprises. They speak in a language that was new to me – “the triple bottom line– people, planet, profits.

Here are a few of the interesting people I met at SVN:

  • Sarah Bratnober from Organic Farms, whose dairy products I’ve bought for years from my local grocery. The company serves small farmers and rural communities by combining two alternative business models—the family farm and the cooperative. Their 1,296 member farmers represent approximately 10 percent of the organic farming community in America.
  • Joel Mendelsohn, CEO of New Leaf Paper, started a company that leads the industry in the development and distribution of environmentally superior printing and office papers. New Leaf uses ultra-high post-consumer waste content, chlorine free bleaching, and non-wood fibers, to minimize the environmental impact of consumer and business paper consumption. They got a coveted 2008 Social Capitalist award from Fast Money Magazine
  • Adi Bemak, whose media education foundation produces independent films, showed “Consuming Children”  a documentary that shows an avalanche of food, clothing, and toy advertising to children starting at a infancy. The United States is the only industrialized country, apart from New Zealand, to allow corporate advertising aimed at children – and the film documents the violent games and toys marketed to young boys and the sexily-clothed dolls marketed to girls as young as five and six.
  • Greg Christian, who calls himself “Chicago’s Conscious Caterer,” specializes in green, local, sustainable, and organic cuisine. Christian also founded the Organic School Project (OSP), a pilot program within Chicago Public Schools that seeks to transform Chicago-area children into healthier, more mindful eaters. He told me he uses only local and organic produce when possible, buys his dairy products from farms in Wisconsin, and purchases meat from farms in the Mid-west that are free of growth hormones. Christian also practices water conservation, offers re-usable living botanical centerpieces, provides invitations printed on recycled paper, uses biodegradable service ware and eco-friendly cleaning supplies and donates un-served foods to local food banks.

Listening to the stories about how these socially-conscious entrepreneurs got started – how they aligned their business goals with making a positive contribution to the community (and, by the way, created thousands of jobs in the process) – was inspiring and very much in line with NCL’s  mission to encourage business to align profits with a social mission. SVN has for years brought together socially-conscious business owners and start-ups.  In the current environment, when the reputation of business has hit rock-bottom, I wish that more of America could see these men and women who think about the “triple bottom line”  The excitement, the commitment, the energy, the ingenuity, and the hard work –  was nothing short of inspiring.

Groups issue ‘Gift Card Holder’s Bill of Rights’ for holiday season – National Consumers League

November 18, 2008

Contact: 202-835-3323,

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL), the nation’s oldest consumer advocacy organization, today called on issuers of gift cards—banks, credit card companies, and retailers—to go easy on consumers this holiday season by lightening up on fees and expiration dates on gift cards. NCL is asking gift card issuers to adhere to a “Gift Card Holder’s Bill of Rights,” setting out what advocates believe would be fairer terms and fees than those currently associated with the cards.

NCL, joined by Consumer Action and the Montgomery County (Maryland) Office of Consumer Protection, is urging companies that issue gift cards—an industry that has mushroomed into a $97 billion annual business—to adopt more pro-consumer business practices.

“With the worst economic times in a generation looming and many Americans facing job loss, decreased wages, and increases in the cost of health care, groceries, and other goods, this holiday gift-buying season may be a source of dread, not joy, for consumers watching their budgets,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director. “The companies who profit from the rise in popularity of gift cards owe it to consumers to reduce their fees and expiration dates, improve the value of their cards, and compete for consumers’ business.”

“Gift cards make great gifts, because they allow the recipient to get something they really need or want, but all too often they are rife with ‘gotcha’ fees and other anti-consumer traps,” said Linda Sherry, Consumer Action’s Director of National Priorities. “We urge gift card issuers to do the right thing and make sure their products have fair terms with no deceptive loopholes that erode their value.”

“While stores in Maryland are prohibited from selling gift cards with expiration dates and fees during the first four years, that is not the law in all states,” said Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection Director Eric Friedman. “In addition, banks continue to market cards with terms and conditions that are not favorable to consumers. We urge the marketplace to adopt this Bill of Rights for all gift card holders.”

Gift cards, which come in two categories— traditional retail gift cards, or “closed-loop” cards, and those issued by banks and credit card companies, or “open-loop” cards—have become increasingly popular gifts in recent years. During 2007’s holiday shopping season, nearly 70 percent (68.9%) of consumers reported receiving a gift card. Gift cards sales in 2007 totaled $97 billion and are projected to top $100 billion in 2008.

In 2006, the value of unused gift cards reached $8 billion. Depending on unclaimed property laws that vary by state, unused gift card funds eventually revert to either the state or issuing company. The Gift Card Holder’s Bill of Rights recommends, however, that gift card funds that go unused due to loss, theft, or failure to redeem should go into state coffers and be used to benefit consumers, rather than back into the pockets of the card issuers.

The flexibility of gift cards has clear appeal to consumers, but terms and conditions may be turning many potential buyers away. According to the National Retail Federation, nearly one in ten consumers (9.8%) say they are discouraged from buying gift cards because they are worried about fees and expiration dates.

“Through a dizzying array of extra costs that include maintenance fees, inactivity fees, dormancy fees, and card-replacement fees, as well as unreasonable expiration dates, and high point-of-sale fees, card issuers are pocketing more of the consumers’ money than we think is appropriate or fair,” said Greenberg. “To address this problem, we ask the companies that issue gift cards to consider the guidelines set forth in our Gift Card Holder’s Bill of Rights. We think customers will greatly appreciate having a few more dollars in their pocket, especially during this very rough economic time. ”

Gift Card Holder’s Bill of Rights

For more detailed explanations of each “Amendment,” or for consumer information about choosing and using gift cards wisely, visit

  1. Gift cards should not have expiration dates.
  1. The value of gift cards should not be reduced by arbitrary fees that diminish a card’s value.
  1. Fees assessed on a card purchase should not exceed five dollars or ten percent of the value of the card, whichever is less.
  1. Card replacement fees should not exceed two dollars or ten percent of the purchase price of the card, whichever is less.
  1. Cards with a balance of five dollars or less should be redeemable for cash with no fee.
  1. Balance inquiries should not deduct from the value of the card.
  1. Terms and conditions should be clearly disclosed.
  1. Unused funds should not go into the card issuers’ pockets, but should accrue to a state fund to be used for the specific benefit of consumers.
  1. Funds from the sale of gift cards should be segregated and held in trust accounts so as to be automatically honored in the event of the cards issuer’s bankruptcy.
  1. These rights should cover any electronic gift card with a banked dollar value.


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit

About Consumer Action

Consumer Action (, founded in 1971, is a national non-profit consumer education and advocacy organization headquartered in San Francisco, with offices in Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

About the Montgomery County (Maryland) Office of Consumer Protection

The Montgomery County (Maryland) Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) investigates thousands of complaints each year involving automotive sales and repairs, new home purchases, home improvements, credit and financial issues, retail sales, internet services and most other consumer transactions. Consumers can check our latest Gift Card Reports at:

Reducing Gift Card Fees Is The Pro-Consumer Thing To Do – National Consumers League

By John Breyault, NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud

With the holiday shopping season quickly approaching, many consumers have started to think about what to give loved ones, friends, co-workers, and others who manage to make the list this year–a harder feat for many, given the current economy. While many shoppers will spend hours looking for “just the perfect thing,” many others will choose to give gift cards instead.

As anyone who has given or received a gift card in recent years can attest, today’s gift cards are not the flimsy paper gift certificates of yesteryear. (Remember those?) Almost every major retailer, bank, and credit card company offers gift cards, and they can be used as easily–in most cases–as a credit or debit card. This has driven an explosion in the popularity of gift card sales. In 2007 alone, the industry totaled up $97 billion in sales, up from $83 billion in 2006. To put that number is context, the entire FY2009 budget for the Department of Homeland Security was $58 billion.

Last year, 7 out of 10 Americans received a gift card during the holiday season. (Great gift-giving minds think alike, eh?) Unfortunately, many consumers who have given or received gift cards have also noticed the cost of that convenience: fees, and lots of them.

Gift cards issued by retailers (known as “closed-loop” cards) tend not to charge many fees since they make their money on the markup on merchandise and services. However, the cards issued by banks, credit card companies, and shopping malls — known as “open-loop” cards because they can be used at multiple retailers -– tend to pile on the fees. From fees charged for the “privilege” of buying the cards, to maintenance fees that deduct value from the card after six months, or even fees charged to check the balance on the card (not to mention the fees the card issuers get from merchants when the cards are swiped), these cards are veritable ATM machines for issuers.

We believe that wherever possible, the money consumers invest in gift cards should stay in their pockets. This is why today we are joining with Consumer Action and the Montgomery County (Maryland) Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) to launch the “Gift Card Holder’s Bill of Rights.” The bill of rights spells out ten pro-consumer steps that gift card issuers can take to make gift cards a better deal for consumers. Given the fact that the economic crisis is likely to make this gift-giving season especially hard on consumers, we believe that gift card issuers should give consumers a break and eliminate or reduce their most egregious fees.

From NCL’s press release announcing the Gift Card Holder’s Bill of Rights:

“With the worst economic times in a generation looming and many Americans facing job loss, decreased wages, and increases in the cost of health care, groceries, and other goods, this holiday gift-buying season may be a source of dread, not joy, for consumers watching their budgets,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director. “The companies who profit from the rise in popularity of gift cards owe it to consumers to reduce their fees and expiration dates, improve the value of their cards, and compete for consumers’ business.”

While we wait for card issuers to improve their terms and conditions, there are several common-sense steps that consumers can take right now to avoid getting stuck with gift cards that deliver less value than they promise. We encourage you to check out the practical consumer tips in the new gift cards section of our Web site to learn more.

A final bit of parting advice: Think of giving gift cards like giving a fruit basket. It’s a wonderful gift that can bring plenty of enjoyment, as long as they’re used up before the fruit goes rotten. Like fruit baskets, make sure and use up those gift cards early to avoid getting pickled by costly fees and expiration dates.

Flying the Friendly Skies – National Consumers League

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

I write from a US Airways flight traveling cross-country from Portland to Philadelphia. At the ticket counter this morning, I was chagrined to be reminded that checking my luggage – one piece – would cost me $15. This is the first time I’ve ever paid to check luggage. Getting out to the West Coast for a conference on Southwest Airlines recently, I didn’t have to pay to ship my bag, and I flew from San Diego to Portland on Alaska Air and didn’t have to pay for the bag then either. Despite my recent varied experiences, the US Airways employees at the checkout counter claimed “every airline” is charging for luggage.

Once on the plane, the flight attendant rolled the cart past with drinks and snacks and headphones, announcing that cans of soda pop would cost $2.00, headphones $5.00, and snacks were available for 5 or 10 bucks.

This conversation followed the pricing announcement:

Me: You guys at US Air are the worst on nickel and diming consumers
Flight Attendant: Don’t say ‘you guys.’ Our union fought management on all these charges.
Me: Who is your union?
Flight Attendant: Communication Workers

My ears perked up. The Communications Workers of America holds a seat on the National Consumers League’s Board of Directors. My curiosity piqued, I made my way to the back of the plane a little later and struck up a conversation with two US Airways employees. Turns out that the employees haven’t had a raise in years. In fact, they tell me they’ve taken a series of pay cuts over the past decade.

Yes, of course, we all know the airline industry has been hit very hard by the increase in fuel prices, but those same prices have fallen significantly in the past several months, and the airlines are still collecting the same fuel surcharges on international flights. USA Today reported on October 28 that, “Despite lower jet fuel prices, fuel charges on international tickets are much higher than a year ago.” Domestic fares – 60 percent – also have fuel surcharges averaging around $170 a flight, though Southwest Airlines doesn’t tack on a fuel surcharge, and USA Today says US Airways has reduced its domestic flight surcharges by 11 percent, noting that the prices still aren’t coming down in proportion to jet fuel prices. All of this has prompted U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to write to 11 airline CEOs, asking them to reduce fuel charges as soon as possible. Industry spokespeople defend the increases, arguing that fuel increases were significant and have been dropping only recently.

Meanwhile, US Airways is also pocketing more cash by demanding that consumers pay to check a single bag of luggage, and (talk about cheapskates!) asking me to pay two bucks for a soda! In 2007, US Airways executive William Douglas Parker raked in $5,444,996 in total compensation, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. While large airlines fuel surcharges are estimated to add $10-20 million a year, neither US Airway employees nor consumers seem to reap the added revenues. If the airlines need to charge more for tickets, do it. But don’t call it a fuel surcharge and double the amount when the cost of fuel is down significant. It is business practices like this – and paying the CEO a 5.5 million-dollar-salary while forcing airline employees to take pay cuts – that make consumers and workers cynical about business.

Women Paying More for Health Coverage? – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

According to a recent article in the New York Times, women buying individual health insurance policies are often paying significantly more than men their same age. The Times reviewed data from multiple insurance providers and online brokers and found that women are often paying well over 30 percent (sometimes closer to 50 percent) more in premiums than their male counterparts. For many consumers who have recently lost their job and health benefits, or for those making a switch from employer-sponsored insurance to the individual market for some other reason, it’s important to be aware of these practices.

This doesn’t sit right with me. The National Consumers League, a longtime proponent of health care for all, has long advocated for universal health coverage. In fact, before coming to NCL and serving as our president in 1940, Josephine Roche penned the first national health care bill while working for FDR’s administration. As a champion of economic and social justice for workers and consumers, NCL opposes such discrimination.

One of the main explanations for charging women more than men is that they are using more health services. Yes, women have babies, and giving birth is expensive. But you can’t punish women for that! Indeed, it’s in society’s best interest to see that babies are born healthy and with good prenatal care and that their mothers receive good care as well. The stress of not doing so is bad for the mom and for the baby. Moreover, aside from maternity care, women make better use of preventive health care services, which is exactly what health care experts tell us to do: get the check-ups, the mammograms, and the pap smears.

Studies have shown that investing in prevention can help delay – and even prevent – the onset of many chronic conditions, which account for a significant majority of the health care spending in this country. This is particularly important given that middle-aged women are disproportionately affected by certain chronic conditions such as asthma, obesity, arthritis, and certain cancers.

Many policy makers are speaking out. In both houses of Congress, leaders are asking why and how insurance companies can claim they are meeting the needs of women when the health care coverage is tough to attain, inefficient or incomplete, and more expensive. The Times article also reports that states such as Maine, Montana, and New York are “prohibiting sex-based rates in the individual insurance market.” Earlier this summer, the LA Times questioned insurers’ process for determining risks. We consumers are alarmed to learn that we may be charged more for (or even denied) coverage based on gender, race, or ethnicity.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that there are close to 17 million women (roughly 18 percent of women) who remain uninsured in this country, many of whom cannot obtain insurance because they work part-time or with companies that do not offer insurance. Of the 77 million or so women fortunate enough to have coverage, 6 percent purchase their own coverage, and that is where women end up paying more than men and where their coverage often falls short, (a number likely to rise in these bad economic times), often excluding mental health, family planning, and maternity care services.

We will work with policymakers to fix the unfair treatment women experience in the health insurance marketplace and to see that any additional expense related to maternity and childbirth are costs shared by all of us.

Hill Briefing Exposes Ugly Reality of Child Prostitution – National Consumers League

By Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition Coordinator

In the film “Pretty Woman,” Julia Roberts plays a glamorous prostitute whose life doesn’t seem so bad. But the ugly truth about prostitution is that it’s a very dangerous world to inhabit: violence is common and the health risks are grave. The Julia Roberts character seems more or less in control of her life. In reality—I learned at a Capitol Hill briefing October 21—many of the women who enter prostitution are actually young girls forced into the trade by their unscrupulous handlers.

I remember seeing the film “Taxi Driver” when it came out in 1976 and thinking that the 12-year-old prostitute played by Jodie Foster was too young to be realistic. I was wrong. In fact, the average age of girls getting into this profession today is 12 to 14, according to Rachel Lloyd, the founder and executive director of Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS), a New York-based group that is working to end the sexual exploitation and trafficking of young women.

These young prostitutes are often runaways from home who meet adults who coerce and manipulate them into selling their bodies. Rapes, beatings, and drugs are used to force the young people—an estimated 20 to 40 percent are boys—into prostitution. Many are vulnerable because they have been sexual assault victims in their own families. “Incest is boot camp for prostitution,” said Lloyd, quoting a phrase often used by advocates. Many young girls are “thrown away” by their families, struggle to survive on the streets, and turn to the sex trade for the income it provides. They find, however, that much of the money they earn goes to a procurer, or “pimp.”

Shaquana Blount, an outreach worker for GEMS, told the 200 or so audience participants that she fell victim to the industry when she was a teen. She recalled being in a car with a customer and waking up in the hospital with no memory of the terrible beating she survived.

Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) spoke about her efforts to stem sex tours to Asia. She recalled sending one New York City tour operator a letter requesting they desist from advertising sex tours only to have the company post her letter on their Web site and ridicule her efforts.

The police and judicial system often treat child prostitutes as criminals, when they are really victims, said Maloney, who has worked tirelessly to pass laws that fight sex trafficking. New York State recently passed legislation that prevents child sex workers under the age of 16 from being prosecuted and offers them help instead. “This is huge. We’re the first state to pass this legislation,” said Maloney. The bill increases the maximum amount of jail time a customer, or “john,” can get from three months to one year.

Governor Eliot Spitzer signed the bill into law—before he was forced to resign from office after a prostitution scandal.

I started this blog with a film reference. Perhaps I should close it with one. Earlier this year, I saw “Holly,” a drama about the trafficking into prostitution of a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl. I read recently that the inspiration for the film came to its writer and producer Guy Jacobson when he was on a business trip to the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh. “I was walking in the street in the middle of the day and found myself surrounded by a group of about 15 little girls, some as young as 5, who were very aggressively soliciting me for prostitution,” he said.

The film’s star, Ron Livingston, finds the moral dilemma presented by the film pretty clear: “To be cynical, if you want to say America stands for something, and we’re trying to make the world a better place and bring freedom and human rights everywhere, why don’t we start with the 12-year-old girls who are being raped in back alleys? Seems like that would be a good thing to fix.”

Keep out unwanted guests – National Consumers League

November 1, 2008

Contact: 202-835-3323,

Washington, DC- Computers have revolutionized the ways we learn, work, shop, pay bills, and communicate with others. But like our homes, our computers contain sensitive and valuable information, so consumers must be careful who they “let in,” warns the National Consumers League. This month, NCL is offering advice for keeping your computer’s security strong and up-to-date in its “2008 Consumer Calendar Tips: Do We Have Tips for You!”

The nation’s oldest consumer advocacy organization, NCL works to educate people about how to make wise decisions in today’s marketplace. Each month, NCL’s Web site,, will feature the calendar and tips for the month. Covering a range of subjects from medication safety, to avoiding scams, the tips are sponsored by major companies, government agencies, and organizations. The November tips about keeping out unwanted guests were sponsored by AOL. This month’s tips offer advice and information about security tools including firewalls, anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and patches.

The print version of the calendar was distributed to consumers free of charge through agencies and organizations around the country. There are no printed copies of the calendar remaining.


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit