Social responsibility takes on many forms, one being ethical consumerism. Shoppers can make choices that have a drastic effect on the way companies operate, forcing them to be more ethical. But should the burden of responsibility lie on the consumer or the companies making the product? In this article, we’re going to look at the complex relationships between ethics and accountability, and consumers and companies.

What is Social Responsibility?

Social responsibility is the idea that people should consider their peers, community, and environment when making decisions. Everyone takes on a societal burden proportional to their influence and ability. Sacrifices must be made, and individuals and organizations alike must take on certain actions for the greater good. 

Examples of social responsibility may be as simple as tossing your trash in the bin instead of littering or as large as a company sponsoring ocean clean-up efforts. A growing form of social responsibility is ethical consumerism, where consumers buy goods on the basis of ethics and sustainability. On the supply side is ethical entrepreneurship, where companies put profits secondary to the ethical production of goods.

Why Consumers Should be Socially Responsible 

Consumers have the power to make massive changes in the dynamics of supply and demand. Companies need their goods to sell in order to stay in business, so if consumers aren’t buying their products, they must find new ways to appeal to their customer base to stay relevant. If we apply this to ethical consumerism, it means that consumers can force companies to take on more ethical practices. This concept is called “voting with your wallet,” and many say that making the vote to buy or not buy certain products can have just as much an effect as voting for certain politicians on Election Day. 

Companies exposed for highly unethical practices are often the targets of consumer-led boycotts. Boycotts can hit a company’s bottom line and leave a permanent stain on their reputation. If a boycott cripples a company’s ability to operate, it has no choice but to concede to the demands of its consumers.

Social responsibility in ethical consumerism can find its way into other parts of daily life. Purchasing ethically sourced chocolates and coffee can open conversations about labor rights at home. Buying sustainably grown produce at a farmer’s market can inspire DIY backyard organic gardens. Ethical consumerism can be a stepping stone to a more holistic lifestyle.

Should Companies Take the Lead?

There is no ethical consumerism without ethical entrepreneurship. While consumers can take charge and change their buying habits, the truth is that ethical consumerism is complicated. Consumers don’t always have the time to research what products are ethical, and it can be difficult to find replacements when there is a lack of ethical brands in certain spaces. In other words, companies need to take the initiative to make and market ethical products in industries that lack them. This will make the endeavor easier for the consumer, and shift the market in favor of ethical businesses.

Many highly unethical companies have near-monopolies over their respective industries. Companies like Mars and Nestle have a huge stake in the chocolate candy industry, and both companies are wrangling with allegations of child labor and human rights violations. This means ethical consumers must find alternatives for pervasive products like M&Ms, Twix, and Kit Kats, which are on display in almost every grocery store and gas station. 

Ethical consumerism itself can be considered an unfair ask to many consumers. It was recently revealed that just 20 companies are behind over a third of greenhouse gas emissions. Several other large companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are responsible for a large portion of plastic pollution via the use of single-use plastics. It’s unfair to put the burden of responsibility on the consumer when corporations are behind most of the damage

Key Takeaways

Social responsibility encompasses many concepts, including ethical consumerism. The idea that consumers can positively affect their community and the world at large simply by altering their buying habits is powerful. But is it fair to put the burden on consumers when corporations can make a bigger impact by becoming more ethical? 

  • Consumers can hold companies accountable by boycotting their products, forcing them to take on ethical practices to stay in business.
  • Ethical consumerism can spur social responsibility in other areas of daily life. 
  • Corporations have a larger impact on people and the environment, so companies taking action is more effective.
  • Ethical entrepreneurship can spur ethical consumerism and make it more accessible.
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