Consumers of the World Unite; You have only your iPhone to Lose
The world has never been populated by a homogenized mass of citizenry, all of one mind and pulling towards an agreed common purpose. Homo sapiens by their nature are far too capricious to arrange themselves so precisely hence people coalesce into a mosaic of different religions, races and political convictions that do not always fit neatly in to man made borders that define a nation state. There is though the modern phenomenon of a universal, not to say unifying, familiarity with the brands of major corporations that shape the world-wide cityscape and would make Birmingham as recognizable to a resident of Beijing as it would to a resident of Hansworth. Maybe then the unintended consequence of globalized trade is that it has produced a globalized consumer and we are all a little more alike than we thought if only united in our love of the Apple Corporation’s latest technological offering and the possibilities Facebook presents for inane local gossip.
Certainly within Western society we are told that we live in a post-industrial world where the bonds of class that united us to some and differentiated us from others have been superseded by a rampant individualism where we can no longer be defined by a rigid system that assigns us our worth depending on our occupation. In this new egalitarian paradigm our opportunity for self-expression is vented in the choices we make as a consumer and it is through our consumption of material goods that we choose our own social identity. It is clear that, if nowhere else, within the temples of mammon we are free to express ourselves and exercise all the power that our bank balance allows. Indeed as Descartes might have said if credit checks had allowed him a Marks and Spencer’s store card “I consume therefore I am".
But don’t runaway with the idea that this is a totally vacuous social trend for there is the hope of salvation for ethical capitalism from within the shopping mall. An Ipsos Mori survey from 2009 shows that when making purchasing decisions 74% of people thought that a corporation’s moral and ethical behaviour was either very or fairly important. This illustrates that regardless of political allegiances, race or religion most people have a visceral understanding that we really are ‘all in this together’. This sentiment is though not exhibited just as a matter of expediency to further our own ends for power but because, for those of us that do not have the wealth to buy our way out of the mire, one day we too may be on the wrong end of a multi-nationals delinquent behaviour. Enlightened self-interest then is a powerful motivation for having high expectations of the companies that seek to serve us.
Even the corporations themselves acknowledge this. No company of any size is complete unless it has a set corporate social responsibility policies documenting why the CEO and his board are fit for beatification. One might be surprised to learn though the reason for concern in such issues as the environment and the less fortunate from profit driven megaliths is not entirely altruistic. Research suggests that customer satisfaction is in part an emotional response to the marketing message that a company mediates about itself and its brands therefore being seen to be good is good for business. But let’s not be too judgmental. The need to act ethically in the search for profit may not be a high minded motivation but is tolerable as who can say what the inspiration is for anyone’s virtuous behaviour. What is galling however is when the facts produced by the public relations machine do not fit the reality of the situation.
Let us take the issue of tax. It may be unfair to expect big business to make up for the deficiencies in an elected governments social policy but at least we can expect it to make a full monetary contribution to the society that it does business within. In the UK an examination of the tax contributions of FTSE 100 companies by The Guardian in 2009 demonstrates that such expectations are not always met. For example between the financial years of 2005 and 2008 Tesco paid 18%, Marks and Spencer’s 17% and British Telecom 5% of their pre-tax profit to the exchequer. Although there is no suggestion of any illegal wrong-doings one may draw the conclusion that there is an asymmetrical relationship between these corporate citizens and the rest of us.
Some might argue in the defence of such businesses that they provide employment and consequently at this juncture fulfill a social role. Employees are though just an inconvenient but necessary requirement in creating profit and often a cost to be minimized. As a result a substantial number of people in full-time employment need state handouts to make ends meet and the creation of well paid and fulfilling work is rarely, if ever, a stated aim in a corporation’s mission statement.
Tax is just one example of where transparency is needed to allow us to be clued-up consumers with the ability to reward those corporations who see the worth in being good citizens and punish those that are here for the ride. The investment community has though pointed the way and ensured through regulation that audited mandatory accounts give a ‘true and fair’ view of a company’s financial health if it is quoted on the stock exchange so that informed investment decisions can be made. It is then regrettable that similar arrangements do not exist to allow an assessment of the moral and ethical well-being of the world’s corporate giants.
A remedy though may be at hand from the International Standards Organisation (ISO). Although a body more associated with systems controlling product quality and environmental standards, they have put their name to a code of conduct that would allow a company to prove they are playing straight with the national and global society that they seek to benefit from. The ISO26000 Social Responsibility Standard is based on 7 principles that appraise how a company handles issues of accountability, transparency and whether respect for the law and international norms of behaviour can be demonstrated. How this standard develops and how auditable it can become to show compliance will be interesting to observe over time and while the metrics used to judge ethical behaviour is open to debate this is a discussion that the whole world should be having. One lesson that could be learnt from the past experience of ISO’s quality standards is that they have become a ‘must have’ for some business to business industries as they assure that the supplier of a given product, wherever it is located in the world, is operating within agreed and auditable conditions with regard quality and therefore bestows prestige on those that hold this badge of honour.
It is surely to be hoped that a similar attitude will become prevalent with regards the honourable behaviour of global companies and those that fail to conform to the expectations of decency that global consumers put upon them fail financially. For as members of a society we are all held up to scrutiny to some extent and the faux moral outrage demonstrated by some sectors of the press with regards to immigrants, the unemployed and single mothers illustrates there are those who are not shy to voice their annoyance at the behaviour of others and would be willing to fiscally penalize those who are seen as feckless. Why then is it deemed “anti-business” for us to evaluate and make judgments on of the actions of our corporate citizens and do like-wise?
What we must realize as consumers is that there is no need for us to be passive partners in global trade if we feel that the behaviour of those that seek to trade with us do not fulfill the implicit and unwritten terms of a contract that most people insist on relating to ethical conduct. For regardless of what we may hear about the heroics of our captains of industry and the bravery of our entrepreneurial risk takers their actions count for nothing unless they are given legitimacy by a customer parting with cash somewhere in the world. It is at this point the decisions that we make on a daily basis can shape not just the business world but also the social and political environment in which business takes place. This does not need the sanctioning of a political leadership or movement, for the sad truth is that the world’s political elites are clueless and looking for direction themselves. Technology though has given many people the possibility to act in unison with those of a like mind as long as a common will and belief can be engendered. It is then not beyond the boundaries of possibility to engineer a situation where the good corporate citizen is rewarded with our patronage while the bad mounts the scaffold to oblivion.
(Author: Alan Norman
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