A desire to make a positive contribution to society is leading graduates to seek out conscientious employers. Justine East reports

Careers with a conscience are more important than ever to graduates, with the latest UK Universum Graduate Survey revealing that a third of them count contributing to society among their top career goals. "The fact that so many consider it even more important than traditional attractions like status and money just goes to show much things have changed in recent years," says Gideon Burrows, author of JustWork: The Ethical Careers Guide.

People have realised they can genuinely make a difference as individuals, he says. Indeed, ethical consumerism is soaring, with two-thirds of consumers saying they would boycott a company they didn't agree with. The obvious next step is a reflection of that convinction in people's working lives - and what better time to do it than when you're starting out? "Who wants to give the 70,000 hours of their working life to an organisation that doesn't match their values?" asks Burrows.

Philippa Foster Back, director of the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE), agrees. "There is much more awareness among young people about major issues than there was 10 years ago," she says. "Climate change is the one most people are familiar with, but there are others too, like supply chain issues."

The problem is that many graduates in search of an ethical career are misguided. AGCAS (Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services) spokesman Terry Jones explains: "The biggest mistake they make is assuming that a charity or NGO is inevitably more ethical than a private sector business. But in fact, some charities are unhappy places where people get bullied and others get criticised for unethical investments or spending too much on advertising."

It doesn't necessarily follow, he adds, that a human or animal rights organisation will have cutting-edge environmental policies. Meanwhile, a health charity might advocate testing on animals.

Some major private sector companies, on the other hand, are really trying to do their bit for society. "But when I tell university students how much companies like BT are doing in terms of ethical policies, they just laugh," says Jones. "They group together all the big capitalist organisations as 'bad'."

Even oil companies - among the most controversial of all businesses - can take corporate social responsibility (CSR) seriously. While Esso/ExxonMobil is at one end of the spectrum - with a very unimpressive record in social and environmental responsibility and human rights - BP believes CSR makes business sense and leads to concrete differences.

Aside from major initiatives such as its social investment strategy, BP's CSR department reports that sometimes it's the smaller-scale actions that matter. In Azerbaijan, for example, Amnesty International were unhappy about security staff guarding a BP pipeline, saying it contravened human rights. Agreements with the security firm were rewritten and training on human rights was given to staff.

So where does all this leave job-seeking graduates? How can you tell the good guys from the bad, and find the employers that match your own values? The irony is that the increase in the amount of information on employers and their ethics means that trying to find the answers can be a daunting experience.

There are several organisations - ranging from the Ethical Investment Research Service to the Ethical Consumer Research Association - that measure companies' social and environmental records, but their results don't always agree. Some organisations consult with customers, while others send out questionnaires to the companies themselves, and what's more they all have different standards.

Most people agree that the best starting place for graduates is FTSE4Good.com, not least because its ethics committee is quick to kick companies off its recommended list if they don't continue to meet its high standards. Foster Back says that graduates should talk to friends to get a feel for the perception of any company they're interested in and use the financial press to check that the company does not invest in unethical businesses.

Ultimately, she says, your ethical values are personal to you and so you need to decide on your own priorities - whether it is testing on animals, striving towards being carbon neutral, or equal opportunities for staff. "Once you've identified them, use the interview to ask one or two very detailed and searching questions," she says.

For instance, if the environment is your passion, don't just ask if the company has an environment policy. What does it consist of? Does it recycle? Does it measure its emissions? What does it do with the waste that cannot be recycled?

"Far from being scared at the thought of grilling employers, graduates should remember that interviewers are generally impressed when they realise you've done your homework," says the IBE's spokewoman.

Nicky Major, head of CSR at Ernst & Young, says that more and more graduates ask these kinds of questions. "People who are looking for ethical careers are exactly the kind of people we want working for us," she says. After all, rather than being run-of-the-mill and bland, these graduates stand out as being passionate, resilient and dedicated.

Ernst & Young is among a growing number of companies that supports staff in causes they feel strongly about. "We try to give our employees as many different opportunities as possible. If there is a particular charity they feel strongly about and they want to volunteer for them, we try to support that. We also have a matching programme for fundraising, which is particularly popular among graduates."

John Lewis also encourages staff to do voluntary work. "The partnership has always had a strong sense of responsibility," says Alistair McKay, director of CSR. "One of our most recent initiatives is the Golden Jubilee Trust, where £5m was invested in allowing partners to apply to take time away from work to volunteer. It can be for one or two days a week or a longer six-month secondment. Since it was set up five years ago, about 190 partners have been seconded to charitable organisations, amounting to 70,000 hours given to charity."

Graduates should beware of assuming that big is best, however. Just because the information you are after is not immediately available, it does not necessarily spell trouble, especially if you are looking into a small company which may not have enough resources to promote its activities - another good reason to use the interview to find out more.

"Ethically aware graduates should also consider the public sector," says Mike Hill, chief executive of Graduate Prospects. "It enables you to get all the benefits of good career prospects and perks, as well as giving something back to society. Many smaller companies who are allied to the public sector are also worth looking at."

For those graduates interested in taking their ethics even further, organisations such as Global Choices and Global Vision International provide volunteering opportunities, which can give you an enriching and valuable kick-start to your career.

Whatever sector you wind up in, Tobias Webb, founder and editor of Ethical Corporation magazine and www.ethicalcorp.com, believes you should look for honesty. "A company that says its ethics are all perfect is lying," he says. "Those which admit there are problems, but are constantly looking for ways to solve them, are the ones to look out for."

'JustWork: The Ethical Careers Guide' (£4.95) is available from www.ethicalcareersguide.co.uk