Consumers Desire A Better World

In this excerpt from his new book We First, author Simon Mainwaring discusses why the public is shifting toward sustainability and social responsibility, and a study that shows people want to change themselves and the world around them.

We First

The first inklings that consumers truly desire a better world arose in the early
years of the environmental movement. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, environmentalism
was the launching point for a new consumer consciousness
that business practices were negligently destroying the Earth by poisoning and
polluting the air, water, and soil for profit’s sake. In the United States, this consciousness
then morphed in the 1990s into a wider movement that became
known as corporate social responsibility (CSR), by which consumers sought to
hold companies responsible for a broad range of sound business practices.


It’s worth noting that in Europe, environmentalism and CSR had already
been part of the tacit contract between corporations and society, and many of
those governments regulated corporate activities more highly to begin with.
But the strength of the CSR movement in America and the increasing globalization
of companies have made the consumer push for socially responsible
companies into a global cause.

Consumers desiring a better world have already achieved some successes
in this regard, helping to transform several industries from the ground up. In
the car business, for example, consumers clamoring for a more environmentally
responsible car got Toyota’s attention–and the Prius and its Hybrid Synergy
Drive engine were born. Consumers also helped reshape the grocery industry
through their desire for organic and healthier foods, opening the door for companies
like Whole Foods and Wild Oats, whose successes in turn forced traditional
grocery chains to begin adding organic foods as well. Consumers acting
in conjunction with advocacy organizations like Greenpeace have also leaned
on companies like Nestlé and Cadbury to encourage them to source their supplies
such as palm oil from vendors that don’t deforest the land or threaten the
species that live there.

While consumer power for a better world is still nascent, it’s poised to skyrocket.
Consumer pressure will greatly expand the breadth and depth of CSR,
forcing companies to willfully change their practices. This consumer drive will
become unstoppable for three reasons. First, following the Great Recession,
many consumers are simply frustrated and angry at corporations. Millions of
them have been personally affected by the relentless corporate drive for profit
above all else, having lost their jobs. These are people who are now distrustful
of corporations and intolerant of selfish behaviors that negatively affect their
lives and their planet.

Second, many consumers, especially those of the Millennial generation,
are no longer willing to tolerate corporations and brands that neglect purpose
or prevaricate about their efforts to be responsible citizens. They will especially
vilify companies caught “greenwashing” (exaggerating or lying about the ecofriendliness
of their products), “cause-washing” (advertising their support for
a cause, only to be revealed later as having donated little or no money), or
“local-washing” (claiming their products are made from local produce or materials
when, in fact, they are not).

Third, and perhaps most important, consumers are simply becoming more
aware of the need for capitalism to evolve. They want to see companies adopt
a more constructive rationale in the practice of their businesses, and they will
have less tolerance for those that fail to place purpose at the core of their missions
and strategies. Such consumers will increasingly seek to conduct their
business transactions only with corporations and brands that practice purposeful
capitalism with transparency, authenticity, and accountability throughout
their entire supply and sales chains.

Today’s consumers are eager to become loyal fans of companies that respect
purposeful capitalism. They are not opposed to companies making a
profit; indeed, they may even be investors in these companies–but at the core,
they want more empathic, enlightened corporations that seek a balance between
profit and purpose. The 2009 Edelman “Goodpurpose” survey of 6,000
consumers aged 18-64 across ten countries overwhelmingly confirmed this
consumer sentiment. Here are some of the statistics that show the extent to
which consumers want a better world and are willing to support those corporations
that make an effort to deliver it:

  • 83 percent of consumers are willing to change their consumption
    habits if it can help make tomorrow’s world a better place to live.
  • 82 percent agree that supporting a good cause makes them feel
    better about themselves.
  • 61 percent have bought a brand that supports a good cause even if
    it was not the cheapest brand.
  • 64 percent would recommend a brand that supports a good cause,
    up from 52 percent last year.
  • 59 percent would help a brand promote its products if there was a
    good cause behind it.
  • 56 percent believe the interests of society and the interests of
    businesses should have equal weight in business decisions.
  • 66 percent of people globally believe it is no longer enough for
    corporations to simply give money to a good cause; they need to
    integrate good causes into their day-to-day business.
  • 59 percent of people globally (61 percent in the United States)
    have a better opinion of corporations that integrate good causes
    into their business, regardless of the reasons why they do so.
  • 65 percent of people have more trust in a brand that is ethically
    and socially responsible.
  • 64 percent of consumers say they expect brands today to do
    something to support a good cause.
  • 63 percent of consumers want brands to make it easier for them
    to make a positive difference in the world.
  • 67 percent would switch brands if a different brand of similar
    quality supported a good cause.

From We First by Simon Mainwaring. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.


About the author

Simon Mainwaring is the founder of We First, the leading social branding firm that provides consulting and training to help companies use social media to build their brand reputation, profits and social impact. Simon is a member of the Sustainable Brands Advisory Board, the Advisory Board of the Center for Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School, the Transformational Leadership Council and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London