Corporate Citizenship Consumer Power Fundamentals

Consumer Power...and Choosing Progress

By Taylor Gray, Ph.D. on November, 17 2020

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Taylor Gray, Ph.D.

The world is a better place when companies are good corporate citizens. I remain focused on developing meaningful and actionable insights from empirical data in pursuit of a better world.

Acknowledging the importance of consumers in shaping corporate citizenship also requires that we acknowledge the nature of consumers. Although often spoken of as one homogenous group-- as in ’the consumers’-- we are anything but, and this carries important consequences for corporate citizenship. What matters to me is not likely to be the same as what matters to you. We may agree on many things, but we are unlikely to agree on all things--and from this difference arises the richness of society. Yet this richness also means there is no one-size-fits all model of corporate citizenship as no single company can be everything to everybody. 

In our previous post, we explored how the world is a better place when companies are good corporate citizens and that consumer demand is the most important force in driving companies to become better corporate citizens (a worldview we know as Democratic Capitalism).

"In shaping corporate citizenship, nothing is more powerful than the choice we make in what we buy."

As companies develop their own culture and structure of corporate citizenship, or perhaps fail to care about this at all, it is up to consumers to decide if and how they wish to engage with each company. Each consumer’s choice will be guided by what matters to them and so every purchase we make is in effect a vote of support for a specific approach to corporate citizenship. In shaping corporate citizenship, nothing is more powerful than the choice we make in what we buy.


Consumer Power in Action

As examples, consider the following. Patagonia has developed as both a clothing and accessories manufacturer and an authentically committed environmental activist--to the point of becoming an icon in the field of Corporate Social Responsibility. GAP, in contrast, has remained predominantly preoccupied with trend- and cost-setting with only recently concerning itself with broader issues as it skirts filing for bankruptcy protection. I could buy a shirt from Patagonia or GAP and in either choice end up with a comfortable and desirable product and in this there is little difference in my choice. But in one choice I am supporting a company committed to multi-generational environmental conservation and in the other I am supporting a company with little concern for much of anything beyond the results of next financial quarter.

To continue, Unilever--one of the world’s largest manufacturers of food and home products--has developed quite a broad approach to corporate citizenship. As an example, Unilever is a co-founder of the Marine Stewardship Council, along with the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), in establishing global standards in sustainable fisheries. General Mills, on the other hand, another of the largest global food producers, has developed a much more narrow approach to corporate citizenship. Although with some modest signs of improvement, General Mills continues to show little interest in the living and working conditions of farmers within their supply chain. You could buy Ben & Jerry’s (from Unilever) or Häagen-Dazs (from General Mills) ice creams and in both choices end up with delicious ice cream. But in one choice you are supporting a company with a comprehensive approach to corporate citizenship, and in the other a company with a quite narrow approach. 

Lastly, Red Ants Pants, a clothing company in Montana, is committed to ensuring all aspects of production, from material sourcing through to production and distribution remains in the USA and benefits rural communities. Other clothing manufacturers with a broader global interest, such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Adidas, have been alleged to be associated with the use of forced labor from religious minority Uighurs in China. Again, our choices result both in fine products but in quite different approaches to corporate citizenship.

"If you can think of any way the world could be a better place than you already have the foundation for your own perspective of what good corporate citizenship should look like."


Power through Choice...And Choosing Progress

Each of these comparisons presents a choice not only between products and price points but, and perhaps most importantly, between visions of how a company should be managed within society. The shirt is never just a shirt, and the ice cream is never just ice cream--each product is the embodiment of a specific perspective of corporate citizenship and each purchase we make is a vote for how we think companies should be managed within society. 

Each one of us is motivated by our own interests, values, and concerns. What matters most to me need not matter most to you, but what matters most to me should matter to the brands I choose to support. 

All of the brands mentioned in the examples above, and all brands more broadly, are reflections of specific approaches to corporate citizenship. Each of us is free to choose which brands we want to support--in making these choices, we choose not only a product but also a vision of how we want the world to work. If we want more jobs in our own communities, we should choose brands which keep jobs in our communities. If we want greater investment in renewable energy, we should choose brands which invest more in renewable energy. If we want an end to child labour, we should choose brands that actively monitor and manage their supply chains. And so on…

If you can think of any way the world could be a better place than you already have the foundation for your own perspective of what good corporate citizenship should look like. We have developed Motive to assist consumers in driving improvements to corporate citizenship, based on what matters to them. We cannot tell you which companies have good or bad approaches to corporate citizenship, but we can provide the information you need to make that judgement for yourself.

Society is a shared adventure in change and corporations are purposefully designed as vehicles of change. Corporate citizenship is a measure of how we guide these vehicles to catalyze the change we want. Through informed decisions and purposeful engagements, we have the power to write the story of a better world.


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