(continues from last week’s post about transparency)
There are high expectations about the potential of the internet to change corporate behaviour. While I agree that it has an impact I’m not convinced that, as it currently stands, it is capable of bringing about the degree of change that would raise developing world workers out of poverty. They are going to have to do that by themselves.
Let’s start with a clip showing how 21st Century commerce is expected to work:
I particularly like the reference to the thumbs-up and thumbs-down function, as seen on Amazon.com. Now here is my point: People might be concerned about an issue, but few of them will take the time, at the moment their concern is greatest, to go and vote down a brand for tolerating sweatshop conditions and vote up a more high-minded alternative (if indeed one exists). I’m just not convinced that consumers are that motivated. Then there is the reception problem: The company can’t tell, just from your giving them the thumbs down, what you are concerned about. Maybe you just didn’t like the colour.
Meanwhile, today’s successful companies have public relations departments that work very hard at keeping bad news out of the spotlight. They do this the traditional way in the news media, neutralising bad press stories, but they also do it on the web by paying for search results and ensuring that positive information dominates the first page of a search result.
Basically, unless you were already interested in labour rights, you aren’t likely to randomly stumble across information about it online, but your most likely way of taking meaningful action is either through:
- Reading about it in a sympathetic news piece that cites a critic, or
- Word of mouth
In either case, your action is not going to come about spontaneously but as a result of coming into contact with a group of committed citizens.
As an example, look at the campaign to make Hershey’s take action on the use of child labour in its supplier network. Just about anything you read about this issue was pushed out by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). Moreover it’s been a tough slog, using all sorts of awareness-building platforms, petitions, media stunts, and in-store protests. They seem to have reached a high level of awareness but who knows what goes on inside the Hershey’s boardroom, they might still want to just ride it out. Perhaps something akin to the Conflict Minerals Act is what will eventually be required.
Consumers just have too much on their minds to, collectively, punish companies when they get to the check-out. If consumers don’t care enough, it is hard to see internal CSR champions getting very far in driving up costs. And don’t even get me started about investors.
Also, what impact has it actually been having? People have been aware of unjust working conditions for a good fifteen years. Who remembers being shocked about those sweatshops manufacturing Nike shoes? Well, yes, the workers in those light manufacturing countries are being paid slightly more than they were then; now you can be reasonably certain that employees work in safer conditions (though not always) and are paid the local legal minimum wage but there is a long way to go. Factories still work their employees way beyond 40 hours a week, still do not pay a living wage, and still stymie attempts to form unions. All of those rub up against the bottom line and very few companies are high-minded enough to pay it when they don’t have to (and nor do their competitors).
Ethical consumerism was a worthwhile movement but it has maxed out in its ability to effect change.
- Ethical practices may attract consumers, but functionality comes first, Network for Business Sustainability research insight; which is itself a summary of a 2008 IJRM article titled Do social product features have value to consumers?
- E Sio-ieng Hui, Corporate Social Responsibility Revisited: Can it address Chinese workers’ needs in a changing socio-economic context? Asia Monitor Resource Centre CSR Research Paper Series No. 1