Consumer Choice and Growing Shared Responsibility

Social media outlets from around the world helped confirm not only the raising death tolls from the Nepal earthquake, but also exposed the different organizations that sprang into action immediately after the news were made public. Within hours of the quake the UN, US, prominent news outlets and other NGO’s set up international aid funds to help the victims. Only a few decades ago, collecting funds to help the victims would have been a painfully long process that would have taken months for organizations to plan and deploy. Today, thanks to the use of social media, within hours of the tragedy, red cross and UN convoys were on the ground providing help where is most needed, counting on immediate funding facilitated by crowd sourcing. This however, is not the first time that social media has played a pivotal role in successfully deploying international aid. The 2011 Japanese Tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake are two other very good examples of an important paradigm shift in the making, that clearly favors ‘collective responsibility’ over the ‘every man for himself’ mentality that has dominated social constructs for hundreds of years.

This should be a major concern for companies, because what happens when this paradigm makes the leap from humanitarian aid to consumer choice, is that socially responsible practices will become a requirement to stay in business and not an option. Smart brands will be wise to note this change in consumer attitudes, where new information is quickly translating into action. Facts that affect ‘other’ people are making consumers feel personally responsible and compelled to act out of empathy. The question that companies should be asking themselves is:  how long do they have to modify unsustainable practices before they fall under the category of enemies of the people? We are no longer dealing with passive consumers, which can mean that those companies who are not taking their social responsibility role seriously, can very soon become extinct. Brands like Monsanto and Walmart are already feeling the pressure to modify their practices after their poor regard for social welfare was made public.

Only a few decades ago, before the fall of the Berlin wall, natural disasters in foreign countries were unfortunate events that people watched in the news but it did not necessarily translate into a feeling of personal responsibility to help. Identity and social responsibility were intimately tied up with nationalism alone (clearly drawing a line, defining ‘us’ vs. ‘the rest of the world’),  and foreign countries fell under the category of ‘the others.’ This is no longer the case, social media is changing that perception. National borders have become irrelevant when the suffering of human beings is at stake. We see this reflected in the three examples mentioned above. People feel not only compelled to speak against violence, inequality, environmental issues and human right violations by also to back their words by actions.

If there is one thing that natural disasters in the era of social media can teach us, is that empathy has transcended the realist theories that dominated the international relations landscape for the last century. The line of ‘us vs. them’ is becoming blurry and damage inflicted to other parts of the world is perceived as a personal matter. Therefore, it is the same human empathy that will lead people to stop supporting companies whose manufacturing practices destroy the planet. Companies unable to demonstrate their value beyond profits will struggle to stay in business. The clock is ticking, and it is a race against time before the sense of ‘collective responsibility’ takes the markets by storm.

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