It's Time To Demand Responsibility From Consumers, Too

Today CSR stands for Corporate Social Responsibility. It's a concept that deals with a business's obligation to the people that help make it successful. Certainly, CSR embraces environmental responsibility, but it goes beyond that. It includes a company's policies and practices to better the lives of its employees, their community and society as a whole. It can embrace issues such as poverty, literacy, disease, education, biodiversity and more.

Pretty much every forward-thinking CEO has embraced CSR as a key part of doing business today. According to CRO magazine, CSR is now a $37 billion industry.

But what about the other side of the coin? What about the consumer's responsibility? As the old adage says, it takes two to tango. No corporation would produce a moronic, self-indulgent Hummer unless there was a moronic, self-indulgent consumer willing to buy it.

Perhaps it's time to broaden "CSR" to also stand for Consumer Shared Responsibility.

When it comes to environmentally and socially responsible behavior, consumers need to shoulder their share of the burden. Convincing them of this, however, may feel a bit counterintuitive.

As marketers, we have a long (and successful) history of making things easier for the consumer. We've added features, benefits, SKUs, distribution ... all in the name of consumer choice and convenience. Now we need to ask consumers to accept a way of living that might be a bit more difficult, or inconvenient. But they could be ready for it.

A recent survey of U.S., U.K. and Japanese consumers by Penn, Schoen & Berland shows today's recession-strapped consumers are willing to give up convenience for price, but that coming out of the recession, the convenience factor will remain low, and "green" will rise (PSB-JWT Sustainability Poll, May 2009).

Responsibility is not fun, or sexy. In fact, behaving responsibly can be a pain in the ass. For example, every morning, I visit my local coffee shop to fill up my travel mug before boarding my commuter train. I believe enjoying a hot cup of coffee while reading the paper on the way to work is one of life's great pleasures.

But once I arrive at the station, I have to carry my travel mug to the office, wash it out and carry it back home for the next morning. It's a pain in the ass. It would be so much easier just to buy my coffee in a paper cup, drink it on the train, and toss it in the garbage when I'm done. Yet by using my travel mug, I'm able to keep hundreds of paper (or worse, Styrofoam) cups and plastic lids out of the waste stream.

So what can we, as marketers, do to get consumers to accept a little bit more responsibility to help ensure the continued survival of the human race?

We could offer a carrot, as Starbucks does when you bring in your refillable coffee mug, and they knock a dime off your bill. Or we could opt for the stick, the way Ikea did when it charged its customers a few pennies extra for taking home their goods in a plastic bag.

But probably the best thing a brand can do to encourage responsible consumerism is to lead by example. Consider reducing your SKUs or simplifying your product offering. Major retailers like Walmart, Target and Home Depot have already begun reducing the number of SKUs they're stocking. Accept this reality, and take a leadership position in helping your retail partners achieve their goals.

Brands should not only continue their CSR efforts, they should expand them in a way that allows consumers to participate. Rapidly evolving social media channels make this effort easier and more cost-efficient than ever, and doing so shifts the discussion from corporate responsibility vs. consumer responsibility to shared responsibility.

This is where success can be realized on a number of levels: incremental sales, increased brand loyalty, heightened corporate reputation, greater employee satisfaction and the promotion of a more livable planet and just society.

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4 comments about "It's Time To Demand Responsibility From Consumers, Too ".
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  1. Chris Corbett from KMA Direct Communications, July 22, 2009 at 1:34 p.m.

    I'm all for corporate and consumer social responsibility, but only if it is responsibly directed. The problem? So much of today's responsibility-chic is irresponsible, and will likely end up doing more harm than good.

    Example: in the name of green responsibility, we've stopped building power plants and refineries. So energy costs and other costs are likely to soar, and that will hurt the POOR the most. Since technology exists to build such facilities in an environmentally responsible way, I think it is the height of arrogant, politically-correct IRresponsiblity not to do that.

    Such pro-growth policies would be a towering accomplishment for the planet and its inhabitants in comparison with this article's penny-ante, self-righteous, nagging, finger-waving at consumers and corporations who are trying to survive the current onslaught of thoughtless PC propaganda, junk science, and mis-guided regulations. The green gestapo has so cowed corporations and consumers that we are going backwards, and devoting precious investment into non-solutions such as windmills that don't give enough energy to people who need it to feed their families, and "green-friendly" mercury lightbulbs that contain poison and require a call to 911 if they break.

    Frankly, I'm not enamored with the mindless rush toward all things green. Conservation has been coopted with irrational PC fanaticism and tut-tuting by enewsletters.

    The "survival of the human race," as this article puts it, is more endangered by eco-zealots who would strangle resource development than by polluters themselves.

    There must be a middle ground, but this article, and this newsletter, doesn't get it.

  2. Gerard Mclean from Rivershark, Inc., July 22, 2009 at 1:46 p.m.

    Maybe we also limit the choices a consumer has to reach companies 24/7/365. Social Mediaists hound brands to be responsive on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, always be listening, averting the next Twitterstorm lest you become the next United, Motrin, Dominos, Amazon, Best Buy, Target and others who have suffered the wrath of mommybloggers and ax-grinders everywhere on line.

    Access cost money and these costs are either passed along to consumers (bigger brands) or simply not adopted (smaller brands) and the twits force them out of business for not being responsive.

    Consumers simply can't keep having things their way devoid of their ability to pay for the privilege. Perhaps I am wrong and the customer is always right. Perhaps the customer can no longer afford to be right.

  3. David Leventhal, July 22, 2009 at 2:13 p.m.

    Really liked your post today about consumers sharing responsibility. The core of your message is to live by example. I want to share a quick story with you. recently we invited Julia Butterfly Hill to come see our new project. We had heard she was interested in moving to a warm climate and be by the water. When see arrived, we took her by the local "paleta" store in Zihuatanejo. The vendor handed us each a paleta and a napkin. Julia said no thanks to the napkin, walked over to the car and pulled out a cloth napkin from her backpack. This small act made a big impact on me. Just like your coffee mug example, being green and socially responsible is a pain in the behind, but the consequences of a million little actions like you carrying your coffee mug and Julia carrying her own cloth napkin do add up and make for incredible results. Thank you for hitting the nail on the head of a very important yet seldom discussed issue. David

  4. Hugh Hough from Green Team Advertising, July 23, 2009 at 9:39 a.m.

    Thanks all for your comments

    RE: Chris from KMA comments - the reason we are in this economic meltdown is because we have been living irresponsibly for too long. Business as usual is not an option. There is a "middle ground" as you say, and that is growing business without destroying the planet.

    RE: Gerald from Rivershark comments - while I understand that "Social Mediaists" as you call it, are a major headache for brands and corporations - thank God for that. Transparency is here to stay and it's the only way to keep corporations honest. Dishonesty is what is costing consumers.

    RE: David from Playa Viva - Think your friend julia is crazy - but it does help illustrate the point, thanks

    RE: David from Coethica - agree with your carrot analogy - I believe Gen Y do take these issues seriously and having a Millennial daughter I know this is the generation that we need to watch out for - they will hold our feet to the fire

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