The tumult of recent years – with mounting social and wealth inequality brought into sharp focus by the ongoing global financial crisis, now entering its fifth year – has prompted many people to ask a range of particularly awkward questions about the society in which we live and whether it really works to the benefit of the majority. While those of us living in the developed world are, it must be said, broadly speaking far better off than the less fortunate people in developing countries, millions of people have been hit hard by the upheaval of the last few years.
Nevertheless, one of the most intriguing developments of the last decade or so is the emergence of the so-called activist consumer. Informed about global affairs and willing to hold businesses to account in the event of an ethical breach, a new generation of shoppers has demonstrated that it is prepared to act with its collective wallet in opposition to exploitative or reckless practices. Although billions of people around the world still live on less than $10 a day, it is interesting that this kind activity has continued to grow in prominence at a time when many western economies are themselves in the middle of the most prolonged slump since the Great Depression.
In turn, this has prompted many big businesses to promote themselves as guardians of fairness and ethics – a phenomenon commonly referred to as corporate social responsibility. While this particular phrase may seem somewhat dubious – like a marketing buzzword – there is in fact genuine substance behind it. Perhaps the one thing that corporations fear above all else is consumers who are prepared to withdraw their custom should they collectively decide to oppose a particular practice. Evidence of exploitation of labour in the developing world, for example, or of unpaid staff at home may prompt a buyers’ strike of sorts. Even if the number of boycotters is fairly limited, the impact on public relations can be devastating – forcing big business to act pre-emptively and thereby prevent any such embarrassment.
The Fair Trade brand, which has grown increasingly popular in recent years, is perhaps a good example of how activist consumers can make a real difference. Fair Trade products have continued to sell particularly well even in spite of the economic malaise afflicting Britain and many other developed nations – evidence, surely, that consumers really are interested in where the products they buy come from, and in what conditions they were produced.