With another day of punishing losses in the stock market and economic uncertainty looming over us like a mushroom cloud, little attention was paid to something positive that Merck & Co. Inc. announced yesterday: The New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant signed on to the United Nation's Global Compact. I didn't know much about the compact until I read the press release, and I found it encouraging. Merck's action might come across to you as just good PR, but you might also find that companies that take steps like this give you some hope for the future.

The U.N. calls the compact "the largest corporate citizenship and sustainability initiative in the world" and says it has resulted in unprecedented partnerships and openness among business, government, civil society, labor and the United Nations. Companies that sign on to the compact are committing to support its 10 principles on human rights, labor, the environment and corruption. Since the compact was launched in 2000, more than 4,300 businesses in over 120 countries have signed it.

The 10 principles say businesses should:

1. Support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights.
2. Make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.  
3. Uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.
4. Uphold elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labor.
5. Uphold the effective abolition of child labor.
6. Uphold the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
7. Support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges.
8. Undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility.
9. Encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies.   
10.Work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery.

You can learn a lot more about the compact and how companies are participating by clicking here.

Dorothy Hinchcliff is editor of FA online and FA green, as well as managing editor of Financial Advisor magazine. She has spent more than 15 years as an editor and reporter covering personal finance and other business issues.