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Consumer social responsibility

Zach Einterz | Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Big business has gotten a bad rap. No doubt some of it is well deserved. From the Enron and WorldCom scandals in the early part of this decade to the recent trend of rewarding failing CEOs with absurd severance packages, Americans have good reason to feel a profound distrust for many of our largest corporations. However, some of our vitriol seems to be directed at the wrong companies for the wrong reasons. It’s popular to bemoan the profits and tactics of Big Oil, the auto industry, Wal-Mart or Starbucks, because these companies are large and seemingly indomitable. But what are we really complaining about?

Is it the fault of the oil companies that we are destroying our environment? Can we blame Starbucks for putting all or our independent coffeehouses out of business? Businesses are dictated by profit margins, and the bottom line is largely determined by consumers. Most businesses are merely providing the products and services demanded by the average American. Instead of blaming big business for all of our evils, perhaps we should be reassessing our own consumer habits.

We are blessed to live in a country that has relatively little business and consumer regulation. By and large, we are free to purchase whatever we want from whomever we want. But as the old saying goes, “with freedom comes responsibility.” Since we are free to choose, we have the responsibility to make wise consumer choices. Many of us blame all the evils in the world on large corporations because that’s a lot easier than coming to grips with our personal responsibility as consumers. We blame the oil companies for gouging us at the pump, yet few of us make any effort to reduce our fuel consumption. We still drive solo to work and are reluctant to trade in our SUV for a compact car. Or we blame Wal-Mart for contributing to an evil consumer culture, yet most of us still shop there because we know it has the best prices. Corporations are criticized for only caring about profit and trying to nickel and dime their operations, yet our consumer spending habits are no different from the business habits of these corporations. We often buy the cheapest good without regard to the social repercussions of our purchase. We talk a lot about corporate social responsibility, but very little is said about consumer social responsibility.

As consumers, and as drivers of the bottom line, our spending habits affect the business practices of corporations. For example, many companies are making more efforts at sustainability due to increased demand from consumers for “green” products. Consumer boycotts can also be effective tools to affect social change. Life Decisions International has been successful in organizing boycotts of corporate contributors to Planned Parenthood, forcing many corporations to give up this “charitable” funding practice. When Don Imus made his racially charged remarks last year, it wasn’t the FCC that booted him off the air. Rather, firms withdrew their advertising from CBS Radio after sponsors were threatened with a boycott. And the decisions of Taco Bell and McDonald’s to increase wages for tomato pickers did not come about through government regulations. It occurred because thousands of Americans protested and threatened to spend their money elsewhere. When consumers show corporations that we won’t tolerate environmental destruction, racism, low wages or abortion, and if we act accordingly, then corporations will change to meet our standards.

In addition to our responsibility as consumers, we also have a responsibility as prospective employees. As many of you prepare for the Career Fair this afternoon, I urge you to consider the type of firm you want to work for. In addition to asking recruiters about your opportunities for advancement, ask them how their firm gives back to the community. Assess their business practices using your own values and don’t be too tempted to accept a job just because it has a high compensation. Many of us will have to freedom to choose to work for multiple different firms. With freedom comes responsibility.

Zach Einterz is a senior majoring in economics and environmental sciences. Contact him at zeinterz@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.