In the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, the Facebook pages of most people who care about sustainability read like a grief or suicide support group. Amidst the weeping and gnashing of teeth, there is a sense of everyone looking forward to the next election in two or four years.
While I understand the sentiment, it is important to remember that election cycles are always at the whim of a small group of swing voters, whereas every person who cares about sustainability and social justice has a chance to vote many times every single day and that vote might ultimately have as much, or even more impact on the future (and present) as elections do.
Every purchase is a vote
The votes I speak of are the purchase choices we make multiple times every day and aggregately millions of times a year. Businesses, especially corporations, play a major role in our society and are having an increasingly large influence on issues such as climate change, the rights of marginalized groups and even public policy. The good news is that we won’t need anywhere near 51 percent of the population to have a big impact with our votes. Even a small percentage of consumers voting every day with their dollars will have great influence on companies.
If you doubt I am right, let me point out two examples. When states started passing laws to ban gay marriage and forcing transgendered people to choose the bathroom of the government’s choice, it was large corporations that stepped up to threaten boycotts of those states. Many states responded almost immediately to the pressure. Why did business respond in this way? Well, two reasons: First, because they know that customers and employees care about these issues; and second, because many people who run major companies care about these issues.
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Another example concerns climate change and environmental sustainability. Mr. Trump has promised to opt out of the hard-fought climate change accord in Paris, as well as roll back environmental regulations at the EPA. For people concerned about the future of our children and planet this may seem an unavoidable disaster. Yet many large companies, from 3M to Walmart, are already taking large strides towards reducing waste and carbon emissions, and renewing ecosystems. By voting with purchases to support companies that are progressive on environment and punishing those who are not making strides, even 5 percent of us could have a huge impact on these companies, since that loss or gain of customers can be the difference between profitability and loss.
What’s more, business often plays an important intermediary role in the decisions governments makes. In British Columbia, an entire rainforest was saved from deforestation in part by pressure consumers brought onto companies such as Kimberly-Clark, which engaged to successfully pressure government to act. In other words, our “purchase” voting can ripple to pressure on elected officials.
So if you really want to influence future regulations, start writing companies and asking them to take a strong stand for the planet and for justice in their own lobbying efforts.
Use social media to make your purchase vote count more
Voting with your purchases is good but even better is to amplify your vote. Every day, use social media to advertise the votes you make and include the hashtags of the companies on Twitter. Say things like “voted for 3M’s commitment to sustainability today at Staples.” Do the opposite, like “friend was thinking of buying a VW today until I reminded him of the emissions scandal.” Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent told me that social media has a big impact on companies and leaders. When I asked what he thought would really get all businesses serious about social good, he said, “when we get to a trillion tweets a day.” Of course, he didn’t mean that literally but he was saying that when consumers engage with regularity, businesses will listen!
Think of Beth Terry, who I wrote about in my book Stepping Up. Beth is an anti-disposable plastic consumer who used Brita water filters to avoid bottled water, but was disturbed that these filters could not be recycled. She started connecting with other consumers by getting them to write letters to Clorox, which owned the North American Brita rights. Her efforts on social media led to conversations with the CEO and eventually a collaborative effort between Clorox and Whole Foods to recycle the filters. She could have waited for an election or proposition to require it but instead starting voting with her purchases and amplifying it on social media.
Terry’s story shows what happens when consumers really take an interest in influencing companies. But every consumer can be a Beth Terry. Follow the news. Find out which companies are actively supporting climate change legislation and sending clear signals that they plan to accelerate towards sustainability. Then find out which companies are doing the opposite, then vote with your buying and amplify your choices.
Support good companies when they do the right things
Since every day is election day for sustainable consumers, we must remember that in order for companies to do the right thing they need our support. Recently, a socially responsible business came out in support of a major environmental initiative and got a meaningful backlash from people who disagreed with their stance on social media. What struck me is that those of us who admired the company did little to support them.
At the recent COP22 meeting in Morocco, several hundred U.S. companies including Nike, Levi-Strauss, Starbucks and Staples issued a statement asking President-Elect Trump not to abandon the Paris climate change accord, and reaffirmed their efforts to reduce carbon. So here is a question: How many of us took to social media to say thanks? How many of us reached out to our friends and said “go vote for these companies today and thank them for standing up for the future!”?
You see, we often want companies to do the right thing but don’t make the effort to support them when they do. It is critical for us to remember that every time a company makes a stand for sustainability, we need to make a stand for them.