Imagine a world where purchasing power was centered firmly around notions of environmental protection, human rights, fair trade and community development. A world where brands competed with each other to attract the attention of consumers based on social and ethical platforms, and the top performing and most respected brands were built on the foundations of sustainability, respect and social betterment.
There's good news: in the last few decades, there has been a conscientious effort by numerous brands, including some large brands, to be more socially and ethically aware. There is also a growing consciousness among the public around issues such as fair trade, environmental friendliness and corporate social responsibility. Brands are starting to display their credentials on products and marketing materials so that buyers concerned about these issues can make more informed ethical purchases.
However, many companies still produce irresponsibly, people buy wastefully, and not enough concern is given to the human and environmental costs of this system. There is not the synergy between business and community that there could and should be. Large corporations still use sweatshop labor to produce goods, don't pay local producers a fair price or source products unethically and the majority of the public is unaware of the companies committing these offenses.
Consumerism drives economic prosperity for many regions around the world and as such is a necessary aspect of human evolution, so rather than sacrificing consumerism, we should work to redefine and improve it.
What can be done to encourage both people to be more thoughtful consumers and brands to be responsible producers for the benefit of humankind? How can we build a world where products, people and nature are in perfect harmony?
International resources for ethical consumers
There are many different aspects to consider and nobody can expect drastic changes overnight. When we talk about a company behaving more ethically or socially responsible, this can refer to animal rights, human rights, environmental impact or actions taken by organizations to improve or empower local communities.
From the organizational point of view, there is a British-based organization called the Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA), founded in 1989. They issue a regular not-for-profit magazine magazine called Ethical Consumer whose mission is to promote "a society where the environment is respected, where human rights are properly protected and where animals are no longer cruelly exploited."
The magazine publishes ratings of products based on 19 criteria, including animal testing, pollution, workers' rights, political activity and company ethos.
In the United States, there is B Lab, a nonprofit site that certifies companies that “meet the highest standards of verified, overall social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.” The vast majority of these companies are small, but large and multinational businesses are noticing as well - BMW (Mini) and Stella Artois have recently used TV ads to promote their support for Feeding America and Water.org, respectively.
How to influence consumers to purchase wisely
Ethical consumerism is on the rise in recent years, no doubt influenced by the reports and findings of the ECRA and many others. There is also evidence to suggest that as many as 90% of Americans are more likely to be loyal to brands that behave ethically. Such reports are encouraging, especially given the advancement of the Fair Trade model and the growing popularity of community-minded startups. Companies like The Giving Keys and many others are using consumerism to solve social issues like homelessness, hunger, and poverty.
People are naturally more supportive of brands that do good and avoid harming people, animals or the environment during the production of goods. So perhaps incorporating social good consumerism into the fabric of our educational system could have both short and long term benefits along the entire production chain and for communities globally.
Celebrity endorsement is another potential method for encouraging conscious consumerism. Celebrities have long been used by brands to favorably shape perception towards their products, and there have been examples of celebrities supporting brands and products that promote social causes (or who put pressure on companies who behave poorly). However, getting influential names on your side is not easy, unless you have the money or the social networks to access them.
Newer generations have wholeheartedly embraced ethical consumption, seeing as more than 85% of Millennials make purchase decisions based on the social corporate responsibility of a company. The ethical consumerism industry doesn't have the marketing budget size of large corporations, but organizations like the ECRA and authors such as Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins (who together published Natural Capitalism) do great work in advancing awareness of issues surrounding consumption.
The economic barrier & what we can do about it
The economic class-based dimension to this also needs to be acknowledged. In general, it's the more affluent who can shop ethically, while those in poorer neighborhoods are naturally more concerned with making ends meet and getting a good return for their money.
This brings us to another idea which could help challenge the economic imbalances: rewarding consumers for shopping ethically. This is at the heart of what Miigle, a Social Impact Tech company, is doing with the Miigle Plus initiative. Miigle develops technologies that automate the discovery of social good brands and makes it easier for consumers to see social good alternative products when shopping online. Miigle allows consumers to effortlessly, through their purchases, support socially responsible and eco-friendly brands around the world that are making a difference.
The power is in the hands of the consumer
Consumers have the power to influence how their favorite brands produce the goods they love, both individually and collectively. Although the current system seems to be a 'top-down' model, it's actually a back-and-forth process of consumers and brands continually influencing each other.
One way of making it seem less 'top-down' is to encourage local production or local involvement in production. This would narrow the gap between producers and consumers and would localize businesses, further embedding them within their communities. Businesses could be more responsible if they are stakeholders in their localities and could directly gain by investing in those areas.
There was a danger not too long ago (and still is in certain industries) that smaller businesses would be wiped out by large multinationals and chain stores, but things might be starting to swing back in the opposite direction. There is now more encouragement for sustainably-run businesses by and for local people, as well as a burgeoning interest in alternative currencies and concepts such as Time Banking (which operates as an incentivised volunteering format that promotes neighborliness and cooperation).
How to support socially conscious companies
In the absence of a consumer revolution that fully shifts its financial support to socially conscious companies, what can be done to encourage more responsible production? Should governments play a role in ensuring that regulations and standards are met? There are already measures in place in most developed countries to ensure protection of rights and standards, and many corporations have Corporate Social Responsibility policies around investing in communities, either in cash or in kind.
But there is always the danger of things such as tokenism, where corporations use social good endeavors as a public relations stunt with little measurable difference being made. There is also the problem of companies outsourcing production to other parts of the world, such as those who use sweatshop labor, to avoid adhering to what they've signed up for.
Empowering consumers, workers & producers is the answer
Ultimately it's about empowering people – not only consumers but also workers in need of human rights guarantees and safe, sustainable environments – and arming them with the skills and knowledge to make the changes that are needed. It's not an easy challenge within the current system, where economic and social power is monopolized by a small percentage of businesses, but it's a change that has begun and is gaining momentum.
As more people realize that current ways of living are unsustainable, it won't be long before we reach a tipping point, one that inspires all of us to contribute to a world where products, people and nature are in perfect harmony.