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consumer activism

Consumer Activism – Protests of the Purse

If you want to force a change in a company’s methods of production you don’t need to organize a protest, or even march in one.  In a blog earlier this year Edelman’s Global Strategy Director David Armano described the impact of what he called “protests of the purse.” Consumer activism, Armano argues, needs to be considered as part of the customer funnel.

Your demand for a product, especially when paired with the activism of like-minded people, can drive change faster than you’d expect. In competitive industries companies are always in fear of losing customers to a more consumer-friendly rival. When looking to make a purchase, don’t shy away from your values. Make companies adapt their product to you.

The last few years have seen many extraordinarily tumultuous moments in the world of political and social issues. Topics ranging from animal cruelty, to protecting women and the LGBT community from abuse, to the presidency of Donald Trump, have all spurred an immense wave of activism. In such an activist society, it has never been easier to mold a company’s practices to match your convictions. The first step to achieving these goals is to realize that you have influence over even the largest companies, not the other way around.

As social movements gain steam, they are often effective at forcing significant changes. The consequences of activism reach well beyond politics. Just search #boycott on Twitter and see what has sparked indignation today. These people are engineering social change from their own couches, just by vocalizing their future demand habits.

[pullquote position=”right”]When activism becomes powerful enough to shift consumer behavior on a large scale, brands and even entire industries can be expected to evolve to meet the expectations of their customers. [/pullquote]Demand becomes less a function of price, and more a function of the perceived social cost or benefit of the product.

Consider cosmetic products, such as shampoo. Animal testing, a practice that many believe is unnecessarily cruel, is prevalent in the industry. A study conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) found that 61% of Americans believe a ban should be enacted against animal testing, up from just 38% in 2003. Fifty-eight percent would not buy a product from a company that engages in such methods. More than four in five expect that companies that identify as “green” or “natural” will not engage in animal testing in any form. The backlash against the testing process in Europe was strong enough for the European Union to ban animal testing entirely.

Climate change has brought about a similar trend. Thirty-one percent of consumers have vocalized that they would reward a company that was committed to responsible energy practices by patronizing them. Two thirds of that subset would also punish companies that were prominent contributors to global warming. Supermarkets and food suppliers now work hard to showcase their climate-consciousness. Words like “sustainable,” “organic” and “eco-friendly” are popular terms for portraying food as socially beneficial. As climate change becomes a more pressing issue, we will see more farmers and food suppliers go green.

Activists may not think that their consumption habits have much of an effect on a company’s decisions. Research from Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School, reports otherwise. King, along with others, feels that boycotts and consumer activism are actually transforming entire industries. In fact, trends like #grabthewallet and others are showing that many boycotts can succeed by creating public image crises for corporations – not by reducing sales. Success stories of climate activism are numerous. Nestle has discontinued deforestation in its procurement of palm oil. Staples has begun to produce its paper out of recycled materials. Kimberly-Clark has taken on measures to reduce deforestation as well. Consumers—even if they do not immediately affect the bottom line—have the power to influence a company’s business decisions.

But it doesn’t have to be a massive crowd. Change can happen one customer, or rider, at a time as in the case of Uber. Uber has been plagued by scandals in the past year, including its CEO’s apparent support for President Trump’s controversial immigration ban, and a corporate culture that seemingly enables sexual harassment. Consequently, Uber has lost over 200,000 accounts since January while its closest competitor, Lyft, has enjoyed a 240% increase in usage compared to last year. Lyft has also received funding from key investors that could propel it so far as to dominate the market share.

The core challenge of activism is persistence. It can take years, or even decades to achieve landmark political objectives. The good news is that activism can push unethical beliefs and practices to the margins of society, where they will become thought of as unacceptable. With the advent of social media-driven activism coordination, the power balance has shifted to favor the consumer. Companies would be unwise to ignore it. As a consumer, it’s one of your most powerful tools to initiate change.

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