During this essay I will be arguing and explaining how the changes in contemporary society have influenced the growing phenomena of consumer activism and as a result have posed new risks as well as positive attributes and experiences for the stakeholders involved e.g. business organisations, consumers and employees. Consumer activism is the process of action with the intent to “protect consumers in their economic role by bringing attention to the political, ethical and moral aspects of consumption (behaviour) and consumerism (ideology)” (McGregor 2016; Holzer et al 2010). Even though the act of consumer activism has been around for hundreds of years, this action of consumers voicing their issues and opinions on organisations, products and brands has become a more pressing and important aspect in contemporary society as information is more readily available due to the internet and other available media platforms as “consumer behaviour is highly influenced by the opinion of others for their product choices and usage” (Kumar 2015). I will be specifically discussing contemporary issues of how technology and the current turbulent political environment are impacting ethical behaviours of both consumers and organizations and whether these behaviours are either posing risks or generating benefits for the stakeholders involved as well as identifying the demands it makes us as moral actors.
The phenomena and action of consumer activism is usually represented through civil society organisations (CSO) and non-governmental organisations (NGO) which are “non-governmental, non-profit organisations that do not present commercial interests and pursue a common purpose in the public interest” (Beinare & McCarthy 2011). They represent collections of consumers, local community members, members of social movements and other groups e.g. trade unions, charities, pressure groups and religious organisations. When trying to understand CSO’s and NGO’s and how they facilitate consumer activism, it is best to look at the ‘Third Sector Model’ which defines civil society as including “all associations and networks between the family, market and the state except firms” (Edwards 2000) and provides a visual representation and counterbalance of power within the market, state and corporations. CSO’s engage with civil society through lobbying, media efforts, protests and non-violent direct action, lobbying and many more. In contemporary society, there has been a rise in CSO’s due to the increasing size of the state and market economy which has “grown so virtual, large and hyper-real that it actively alienates us” (Gray & Bebbington 2006), due to vast globalisation. So, this rise in CSO’s means the likelihood of consumer activism is imminent and an increase in activity from consumers helps shape ethical behaviour and experiences in contemporary society.
Technology is a massive part and recent development in contemporary society with the introduction of the internet helping to breed and initiate a lot of consumer activism discussion. Consumers do not make buying decisions in the same way anymore with “survey evidence regularly showing that significant proportions of consumers are fully willing to incorporate ethical decisions into their product purchase decisions” (Crane 2001) and most consumers seek to find this information on the internet. With the internet, information is more readily available to a consumer who seeks to purchase with an ethical mindset and therefore can access a “whole set of issues and considerations that might impinge upon the purchase decision such as product safety, environmental impacts” (Crane 2001). These issues and considerations raised about products and organisations can be mainly accessed through discussions of consumer activists through platforms such as social media, especially Twitter as consumers now feel “obliged to rise up and fix a broken world themselves, using ballots, banners and Twitter and other mechanisms at their disposal” (Horst 2018). This change in ethical behaviour from consumers being openly more active, with one out of five Americans being involved in consumer activities (Horst 2018), shows there is now more demand for us as the consumer to make purchases that are more ethical as well as having pressure for consumers themselves now needing to demand organisations to change their policies by taking an ethical stand against them. These groups of activists banding together are NGO’s which are “high profile actors in the field of international development, both as providers of services to vulnerable individuals and communities as a campaigning policy advocate” (Lewis & Kanji 2009). NGO’s are “increasingly focusing their powers of persuasion on firms” (Spar & La Mure 2003) as they use consumers and public pressure to damage a firm. A classic example of this is when the app Uber saw consumer outrage with the manifestation of the #DeleteUber movement which surrounded the company’s perceived profiting from Trump’s administration travel-ban protests which is an “exemplar that incorporates the evolving media landscape” (Fraustino & Kennedy 2018). Due to consumers boycotting Uber, they lost 200,000 users and resulted in competitors such as Lyft experiencing an increase in downloads. As a result, Uber then released that it had now set a $3 million fund aside to help drivers affected by the immigration ban (Isaac 2017), which shows how the pressure from NGO’s with the use of social media, results in a firm, in turn, trying to “limit the damage by bringing its behaviour in line with the NGO’s mandate” (Spar & La Mure 2003). This example shows the power of this phenomena when changing ethical behaviours of organisations as it shows that activism impacts brand image, transaction costs and competitive position, and therefore firms need to “treat activism as another cost of doing business, one that demands a rational and well-calculated response” (Spar & La Mure 2003). On top of this example of boycotting, there are also now websites such as ‘theethicalconsumer.org’ that have their own boycott list (appendix 1) which encourages consumers who are trying to consume ethically to boycott and expose companies who might not be deemed to be carrying out ethical practices. This is again encouraging ethical behaviour from consumers to one another as by exposing organisations on a large public platform such as the internet, this means that more consumers are going to be aware of these brands ‘unethical’ actions that might not have known beforehand, helping them to question their own ethical behaviour as moral actors of consumption.
On the other hand, due to developments in technology and the internet “interaction between firms and activist groups stand out as a fairly recent phenomenon” (Spar & La Mure 2003) and therefore organisations can also benefit from consumers being more vocal about how they conduct their business operations and create their brand image. An example of this is the very successful cosmetics company The Body Shop who prides itself on being an ethical and environmentally responsible business and have gained praise as they welcome activist discussions and opinions within their business (Hobbs 2017). Their actions in 2017 to end their relationship with the Daily Mail is an example of The Body Shop’s success of working with the NGO ‘Stop the Hate’ that suggested to the Bodyshop in a tweet to “stop advertising in newspapers it considers to be promoting bigotry” (Smith 2017). This strategic move from The Body Shop could be seen to be taking on the view and approach of Mcdonnell and Kings 2013 hypothesis where “firms that enjoy a higher position in their field have more to lose when that position is threatened” as The Body Shop are aware of this threat, so welcome consumer activist opinions. This can help to minimise potential risks, mainly financial and brand image damage, as they are working alongside activists who can easily injure their business, as well as the fact that one of their main USP’s is that they are ethically and environmentally responsible. This change in ethical behaviour from organisations is essential in contemporary society as even though activists have always been around, brands must be more careful now as their transgressions are more visible as a result of the developments of technology, the internet and other media platforms.
Another issue that has now arisen in contemporary society with this phenomenon is that the recent turbulent political times are now playing a big role in how both consumers and organisations are choosing to conduct themselves when it comes to their ethical stance as “consumption itself has become an increasingly problematic realm of contemporary governance” (Clarke et al 2007). Brands are now having more involvement within the political sphere with bigger companies being more likely to be dragged into politics due to the globalisation of businesses. Brands are ‘influencers’ and are finding that they can no longer stand on the side-lines and avoid engaging in political debate as they are “coming under pressure to clarify their brand values and take a stance on some of these highly polarising issues” (Bacon 2016). A classic example of where a successful brand was forced to reconsider and change its policies and strategy was when Kellogg’s fell under scrutiny for advertising with right-wing website ‘Breitbart’ as activists claimed that the news outlet promoted racism, misogyny, and hate speech so an online campaign was created to prompt customer complaint towards Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s strategically responded to this claim by pulling its advertising from the news outlet as it wants to “ensure our ads do no appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company” (Helmore 2016). This example shows how organisations are now starting to take the MSI (Multi-Stakeholder Initiative) approach as “corporate leaders have now begun to corporate with representatives from non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) and other civil society actors to develop new regulatory standards and procedures” (Moog et al 2015).
However, other brands have gotten ahead of the game and have decided to take a political stance without the need of direct pressure from NGO’s and other sectors of civil society. This is to minimise risks and to take a strategic approach as even though as “odd as It may sound, firms can occasionally differentiate themselves by conceding first- being the first in the industry to accede to NGO demands” (Spar & La Mure 2003), especially in industries when all firms are under the same activist attack. An example of a brand getting ahead of the game is Starbucks as they responded to Trumps travel ban by promising to hire 10,000 migrant refugees in the next five years as they claim that they “will neither stand, nor stand silent, as the uncertainty around the new administrations actions grows with each passing day” (Schultz 2017; Vaughn & Rushe 2017). This shows that Starbucks is now taking responsibility for the power and influence they possess as a very global brand and are aware that they need to change their ethical stance and behaviour to supporting high profile causes and NGO’s, even though it may not be the most strategic or financially benefitting strategy. This change in behaviour is due to the demands made as we are in an era of highly publicised scandals as well needing to address the public concern for environmental ruin and poor labor conditions as organisations are “increasingly confronted with the need to address new social and environmental concerns” (Moog et al 2015).
To conclude, it is clear from my research of this phenomena that consumer activism will always be a part of society’s day to day life, as there will always be a need, want or demand from consumers for change within organisations. This argument therefore brings us to the question that is raised that will organisations ever be able to do enough to satisfy all consumers from an ethical standpoint? From this essay’s findings, it is evident ethical behaviours have certainly changed for both consumers and organisations, as consumers wants and demands for ethical products has grown and due to developments in technology and having greater access to the internet, they are certainly able to be more vocal with their demands. Whereas, organisation’s ethical behaviours have changed in contemporary society as they are now starting to work more with CSO’s, NGO’s and MSI’s, showing that they are too addressing issues that could have once been ignored. Showing that they are now being more strategic when facing consumer activism. Therefore, this phenomenon has certainly changed ethical behaviours and experiences for the stakeholders involved due to changes in contemporary society. But, for organisations it is almost definitely impossible to become ‘completely ethical’ without negatively affecting profits and other aspects of the organisation.