I’m waiting patiently in line at the fish counter of my local Whole Foods. Two customers ahead of me are standing at opposite ends of the counter, bridging the space between with friendly grocery store banter. As they chat, the man points toward one of the rows of fish in the case. The woman shakes her head and politely explains that his selection contains way too much mercury. He points toward another, but it’s “full of carcinogens.”
“For real?” he mumbles in disbelief. It’s his turn to shake his head, as he walks away without any fish in his basket.
This guy was trying to do the right thing. He was in a health-conscious store, trying to purchase a healthy option for dinner. And yet, he left feeling incapable of making a choice that actually was a good one.
This story represents a lot of what’s going wrong today with social responsibility. My agency recently released year-seven findings for our annual benchmarking study on socially responsible spending and other “do good” behaviors. The results show that such behaviors are continuing to decline across the country. What’s worse is that we see the greatest slide among younger Americans, the poster children for being purpose-driven and socially responsible.
These findings might seem a bit confusing.
After all, we seem to be experiencing significant gains in leveraging business as a force for good. When our agency completed certification as a B Corp back in 2012, we were among a group of approximately 300 companies. The number of certified B Corps eclipsed 2,500 in 2019. Then there’s the well-publicized Business Roundtable statement on purpose, and a growing body of research from organizations like Nielsen that suggests consumer demand for sustainable goods is strong.
Our study confirms that a majority of Americans still buy into the “do good” movement. And yet, our findings also clearly signal that all is not well.
Here’s the problem
The issues being addressed by social enterprises and mission-driven organizations are so nuanced and complex it’s almost unfair to ask the average consumer to make the right decisions all day, every day.
Earlier this year, I attended a conference full of the most committed and socially conscious organizations. It was fascinating, and mildly depressing, to see how quickly moral dilemmas and legitimate obstacles complicated most of the issues we attempted to address as a collective.
I watched as a room full of mission-centered business leaders agreed that opening hiring processes to assist previously incarcerated individuals was a priority for our society only to be crippled when they considered how to incorporate such practices into their own businesses. I watched as a prominent food company, which is a leader in social responsibility, advocated for the virtues of organic farming only to admit that they would not be economically viable if they were to fully transition to organic ingredients. Not to mention, they would torpedo countless local farms in the process.
Here’s another example. Consider the current misinformation and confusion around climate change. Think about the string of debates one has to navigate. Is global warming real? If it is, are humans responsible for it? If we are responsible for it, can we do anything about it, or is it too late? Or look at recycling. The last I heard, recycling is broken, so are we doing more harm than good?
This complexity is crushing us
The issues we care most about these days are riddled with complex, interdependent variables. They are historical and systemic in nature. They are confounded by diametrically opposing views and intellectual contradictions. Progress is thwarted by unintended consequences. When we talk about what’s at stake, we use words like extractive and regenerative, inclusive and sustainable. This is all a very complicated way of saying something very straightforward: This stuff is hard.
And consumers are even more lost. They are increasingly less optimistic about the world they live in, less confident in their ability to drive change, and less knowledgeable about how to make the “good” choice when they purchase products and services.
That’s because our world is full of fake news and real crisis, propaganda, politically bent viewpoints, divisive debate, and generational sins at every turn. Add to that the trials of everyday life, which are leaving us sicker, more anxious, and lonelier with every passing day. Our capacity for change as individual consumers is being taxed. And we are not equipped with the tools to be successful.
There’s way too much noise
It’s too hard to do good. As a result, we are seeing a decline in the ability of consumers to support socially responsible businesses, even when their ideals align with such organizations.
Should consumers be a little more proactive and educate themselves? Yes, of course. But remember, it required national campaigns to convince people not to throw trash out the windows of moving cars or to overcome the massive inconvenience of buckling a seatbelt for safety. In other words: Society typically needs to take collective action to nudge this kind of thing along.
Moving forward, we have to simplify our terminology and make it much easier for consumers to do the right thing. We have to be honest with ourselves and admit we don’t have all the answers, while pressing ahead to quickly find them. And we have to strive for clarity, so that consumers can take action with some degree of confidence. And last but not least, we must keep pressure on businesses and government to act with increasing urgency to address our biggest challenges.
I often feel just like that customer at the Whole Foods fish counter, frustrated because my best intentions fall short of the good I desired to do. I fear there are too many of us walking away with empty baskets that were intended to be filled with goodness. This trend needs to be reversed. It’s as simple—and as complicated—as that.
Heath Shackleford is the founder of Good.Must.Grow., a socially responsible marketing consultancy that helps purpose-driven companies and nonprofit causes succeed. He resides in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons.