Consumers responsible for what they purpose

by Rosie Brown

As a business major, I have had the term “corporate social responsibility” drilled into my mind mercilessly. For those of you who are not business majors, corporate social responsibility can be defined as the obligations of companies to “monitor and ensure that their activities are aligned with the social, economic, and environmental expectations,” according to Campbell R. Harvey’s Hypertextual Finance Glossary.  I am sure that the priority society places on the corporate conscience is noticeable to you as well. Whenever I read The New York Times, I always notice two or three articles about a corporation answering the cries of the consumers and exploited laborers.

But lately, something has changed. There is something different in the air. What is it, you may ask? Consumers are now obligated to monitor their own shopping tendencies, to ensure that their purchasing habits are aligned with the expectations they once imposed on corporations. Academics and professionals refer to it as “The Other ‘CSR,’” or “consumer” social responsibility. I call it irony.

Either way, the tables have now turned. Companies are approaching their consumers with products that not only fulfill the expectation of being socially responsible, but also call consumers to practice what they have been preaching for years. For instance, last week, Dr. David Batstone of the University of San Francisco School of Management, published an article in Al Jazeera about a new mobile application called Free2Work, which allows consumers to scan product bar codes and see the “data and transparency of the supply chains” of the merchandise. This app, which was created by Not For Sale, Batstone’s non-profit organization that works toward ending human trafficking, also allows users to browse the database of information by product type or company and review the facts of the supply chains. This app functions as a form of accountability for companies to uphold ethical and legal integrity with their employees and their customers. A latent and humbling side effect, however, is the responsibility now placed in the hands of the consumer. As Batstone said, we shoppers now have “a personal link to the demand of modern slavery.” All deciding power is now in the hands of the buyer about whether to be socially responsible.

That’s right. With the wonderful access to information at the swipe of a finger, there is no longer any valid excuse for the economic demand for inhumane labor laws and exploitation in less developing countries to continue. The majority of us have advocated justice on the sidelines, but now we’re up to bat. With this new portal of information, shoppers can accurately consider human dignity as a factor in our decision-making. As Batstone said so well, “When a million consumers start shopping with their conscience, they shift the economics of the market.” With consumer conscience affecting the profitability of a product, corporate conscience is likewise restructured to include the value of human life when calculating the net profit of their merchandise.

I hope you are as inspired to change lives as I am. In case you aren’t sure where to start, there are a few little changes that will make a big difference.

First, get educated. If you have an iPhone or Android, Free2Work is a free app that contains a plethora of information about a large variety of companies. Otherwise, you can always Google annual reports of businesses, read news articles that highlight what companies are doing right (and what they are doing wrong) and look into the supply chains of the products that you cannot live without (the iPhone in your pocket, the coffee you are sipping, the Adidas shoes on your feet and the other 13 pairs of shoes in your closet). Knowledge of the matters at hand will open your eyes to a world you never would have seen unless you had put in the time and effort to do some research. How can we blame corporations for injustices, telling them that ignorance is not a valid excuse, yet continue to buy products with our eyes closed to our own hypocrisy?

Second, walk the walk. It is an uncomfortable feeling when you realize the brand you have always loved and supported does not quite share your passion for ending inhumane child labor practices. Understanding that our purchases create demand means that we can no longer purchase the product of a socially irresponsible company without feeling guilty for supporting them. I challenge you to become an activist. Don’t just boycott products; communicate to the companies how much it breaks your heart that you have to cease supporting them because of a lack of social responsibility on their part.

Lastly, discover companies that are worthy of your advocacy. Because of this new trend of ethical consideration in the buying process, new companies are starting almost every day with new products and ideas that seek to improve the living and working conditions of their laborers. Social entrepreneurship is not a new field of business, yet it remains a subculture in the professional world.

Whitworth graduates have been known for dabbling (and succeeding) in the waters of social entrepreneurship. Who knows? Maybe you’re next.

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