A coalition of pension funds and environmental and church groups yesterday announced it had organized a drive to place a controversial environmental "code of conduct" resolution before the stockholders of 54 of the nation's biggest companies when their annual meetings are convened next spring.
The shareholder resolutions were submitted at a time of growing public concern over global warming, acid rain, toxic waste and other environmental hazards.
Widening attention to such issues has prompted a number of corporations to take their own actions: McDonald's Corp. plans to stop using nonbiodegradable plastic foam containers in its restaurants; Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. are introducing recyclable plastic bottles; H.J. Heinz's Star-Kist tuna division no longer uses nets that inadvertently capture dolphins.
The shareholder campaign is being directed by the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies -- called Ceres -- which has brought together professional investors who control $150 billion in pension and mutual funds.
The investment groups include the pension funds of California and New York City and a group of 250 Catholic and Protestant church groups, while the environmental groups include the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, which together claim 10 million members.
The main purpose of the shareholder resolutions is to convince the corporations to sign the Valdez Principles -- a 10-point code of corporate conduct for dealing with environmental problems.
The most controversial sections ask companies to publicly disclose operations that may pose health or safety hazards and to produce annual audits of progress on environmental questions.
Many corporations object to the disclosure because of potential legal liabilities, according to the environmental coalition.
Joan Bavaria, who heads the Ceres coalition, said the resolutions represent a more activist role for many stockholders. "Shareholders ... know there are two bottom lines. One is profitability. The other is a healthy planet," said Bavaria.
The shareholder resolutions are expected to be controversial. Only a handful of small- to moderate-size companies have been willing to sign the Valdez Principles -- a name selected after the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled millions of gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound in March 1989.
At International Business Machines Corp., one of the companies asked to sign the Valdez Principles, spokesman Mac Jeffery said that before IBM officials make any decision on the request, they would meet with representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, based in Chicago, which sponsored the resolution going before IBM shareholders.
Jeffery said IBM wanted to discuss the concerns of the church group and to tell them of IBM's existing environmental policies.
Shareholder resolutions went to 16 industries, including oil, chemicals and utilities. Among the corporations were Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Eastman Kodak Co., General Electric Co., American Express Co., McDonald's, Gannett Co., The Washington Post Co., Amoco Corp., Exxon Corp., Champion International Corp., Houston Industries Inc. and Waste Management Inc.
In addition to resolutions asking companies to sign the Valdez Principles, a variety of resolutions from members of the Ceres coalition address other environmental problems and in some cases ask the companies to make public reports on specific topics.