Change2010_02: Greening the economy and CSR

Changing the meaning of “C” in “CSR”

In this third article: we are are all consumers- individuals, groups, and, yes, corporations- and the “C'” in the title stands for “consumers”: so Consumers’ Social Responsibility (C’SR).

Over the years, the legal framework protecting consumers evolved, potentially giving to any consumer the same rights- but, of course, I, as an individual, cannot (usually) afford to pay lobbyists and other “consensus shapers”; and the “greening” of the economy is almost becoming yet another marketing opportunity.

I will not repeat what I already presented in Consumer 3.0, on how we gradually shifted from a passive consumer, receiving what was on the menu (1.0), to one choosing from a limited set of options (2.0), to influencing what is actually available in the kitchen.

Why the kitchen comparison? Because our “Crowdsourcing”, “Wikinomics”, etc, bring back to mind the old aphorism about law-making: you might like the end result, but, as in sausage making, you do not want to see the process.

Invidual consumers advocating for Corporate Social Responsibility are, in effect, often unable to walk the talk, and shifting from the consumers to immaterial, self-appointed organizations the power to choose.

The shift toward C’SR became a constant probably with the “boycott” movements using highly visible media and self-production, and mobile phones and the Internet are merely outlets.

A famous Time magazine cover, said: with the Internet, the person of the year is you; and, as any public figure, we get new rights and new duties.

Green consumers in a knowledge economy

To simplify, I will remove from the table the discussion about carbon credits “quotas”, and consider off-setting only in the same territory: we did not plant more trees in Brazil to reduce acid rain in Europe- we changed our emission standards.

More than one year ago was relatively popular on Facebook an application where you declared the “greening” initiatives that you adopted- was.

Changing the consumption model will not be the result of yet another logo or marketing campaign, but of individual choices, more readily available information, and the sharing, between consumers, of “patterns” that they adopted to shift consumption approach.

The more technological (or those based in Asia) already saw an extreme case of “customers’ instant access to information: aiming the camera on your mobile phone to the 2-dimensional bar code in a supermarket, and seeing on the screen a product review or description.

In most markets, it is science fiction- but I saw often “Cybercafe” corners in shops, with shoppers dropping in to check and compare prices and characteristics that they saw on the shelves.

With the old CSR, the consumer could be self-righteous and boycott a product, but, as the “entity” was an immaterial corporation, you can always dissolve or merge, maybe also keeping the old brand under new ownership, and claim that now everything is fine.

With C’SR, as now anybody, at any age, is used to have a mobile phone, eventually with a camera, GPS, etc, if you increase sensibility in, say, health issues, eventually some websites will re-use the same information available on other websites.

Internet-only advocacies often seem almost to forget that one million followers on Facebook or Twitter does not mean that you have one million followers sharing your cause in their everyday life; they just click a button- one, one hundred, one thousand times, and then really involve others only in the ones that they care about.

Therefore consumers, by sharing while shopping what they think and some “questions” about the product or its producer, could have real-time influence on sales, e.g. by attaching to the product review some quick news about the company.

It is interesting: Internet is generating “shopping communities”, built around concepts such as Km0 (i.e. buy/consume where it is produced), fair trade, etc.

Sharing real life information and experiences, consumer-to-consumer, requires a certain degree of trust, if you cannot meet your “advisor”.

But as anyone who bought something online knows, if a product is suggested by other 100 customers, that does not imply that a) they bought and/or used it b) they are real customers c) that you share their tastes.

And if you are an expert on something (or are pretending to be one), you often have an agenda.

Truth online is a commodity that can be easily traded- and when “being green” is a requirement to be on the market, sometimes creativity in communication is significantly cheaper than real-world action.

Transparency and communication

Greening the economy implies rethinking every single bit of our economy: from buying only what you will consume, to reducing the travels- or simply finding alternative ways to package products and recycle.

Enter the “Greening consultants”? Frankly, you would need somebody who keeps being updated on the costs/benefits profile of each step of each process that they cover- better to use “crowdsourcing” if and when needed- and just facilitate the communication process (why not- by creating free online services used by politicians).

In real crowdsourcing, you need to have people contributing different perspectives and patterns based on experience, experience that can be discussed with others, to inspire each of the participants to find patterns that (s)he can use.

In the early 1990s, to reduce the number of cross-functional meetings, it was possible to reduce the number of meetings, while having access to the expertise required, by using few social interaction rules to help brainstorming via a tool called Lotus Notes.

Some processes and activities will require just one “round” to identify alternatives: but, more often, a first round will produce the best economically sustainable alternative- when the decision is made.

You set a first basic target, and when everybody approaches that target, it becomes possible to discuss about the next step- a continuous improvement approach.

Being a responsible consumer will imply, as in “49th Parallel” (1941), knowing thy neighbour: self-policing online discussions will become more common, quickly removing misleading information from decision-making.

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