If you’ve been living on Earth this past year, you know that a company called Uber has done some bad things. So bad that numerous lawsuits have been filed, employees and top management have been fired, and a social media campaign called #DeleteUber has gone viral. Uber’s the company that everybody loves to hate. And lots and lots of people are still using it.
Which leads me to wonder: How bad does a company have to be before we kick it to the curb? Given a choice, I’m guessing we’d all like to support companies that do good things. Of course, the definition of “good” will vary, based on our politics, preferences, and personal interests. Corporate actions that trouble one person may elicit a shrug from a roommate. If a company acts egregiously in our eyes, do we change our habits and find an alternative? That may depend on how much we believed in their mission before their misdeeds, and whether we feel personally betrayed, or just put out. Increasingly, it may also come down to how habituated we are to the product or service on offer.
How bad do you have to be? Well, that depends.
Like it or not, companies with less-than-stellar corporate social responsibility (CSR) records can sometimes get away with being bad because we just can’t do without them (or expect better from them). We’re addicted to rock-bottom prices and perks like free shipping and no hassle, 365-day returns. Which makes it both inconvenient and expensive to stand on principle and choose products made, say, in the U.S., instead of imported from countries with questionable worker rights laws.
In the case of Uber, I’m guessing many of us who could boycott, just… aren’t. Case in point: despite following Uber’s bad press over the past year, I recently spent an Uber-enabled weekend in the New Jersey suburbs. Faced with a choice between waiting thirty minutes for a free shuttle or calling Uber, guess what I did? In my defense, I didn’t summon Uber personally from my own phone (I had deleted it, natch) but I went along for the ride(s) when my friends tapped their own accounts. Part of it was pure convenience and part was a discomfort with appearing preachy among friends who were either uninformed or unconcerned with Uber’s record.
In my defense, I didn’t summon Uber personally from my own phone (I had deleted it, natch) but I went along for the ride(s) when my friends tapped their own accounts.
My experience notwithstanding, studies of consumer attitudes about social responsibility reveal a global trend toward consumer awareness. Armed with a smartphone and even the slightest motivation to seek out information, consumers can discover where a company sits along the CSR continuum, and make purchasing decisions based on what they learn.
Personal sacrifice for the greater good
A 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR Study reveals that today’s consumers are increasingly concerned with how a company acts with respect to environmental and social responsibility. And, according to a review of that study by Sustainable Brands, “As personal accountability and sophistication grows, consumers are also considering their own role in addressing social and environmental issues. Global consumers surveyed state they are willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good: Four-in-five are willing to consume or purchase fewer products to preserve natural resources (81 percent) or buy a product from an unknown brand if it has strong CSR commitments (80 percent). Consumers are even willing to forgo elements such as ownership or quality to push progress forward.” Key findings from the study include these telling statistics:
91% of global consumers expect companies to do more than make a profit, but also operate responsibly to address social and environmental issues;
84% say they seek out responsible products whenever possible;
90% would boycott a company if they learned of irresponsible or deceptive business practices.
For those who want to get serious about conscientious-spending, the internet serves up a wealth of information about specific companies and brands. Sites like Ethical Consumer enable quick decision-making when you want to feel good about how you’re spending your money. They provide details on over 40,000 companies, brands, and products.
The Buycott, “Vote with Your Wallet” app informs consumers who want to know who stands to profit from specific brands and companies. A feature allows users to look up or scan a UPC of “bad” products with a smartphone and find sustainable alternatives. And the app includes a “Speak up” function so users can notify a company of their decision to boycott their products. At Change.org, consumers petition for social change by signing on to boycott companies for a range of reasons, from outsourcing American jobs to mistreating animals.
Sorry, my bad.
What's bad for you, is good for me
Consumers don’t always agree on what constitutes bad behavior—what’s acceptable to me might cause someone else to boycott in a heartbeat, and vice versa. A 2013 report on an earlier Cone Communications study noted that “Millennials are less likely than the average American to want companies to focus on economic development, and more likely to want them to pay attention to issues such as poverty and hunger, the environment, human rights and education.” We’re also a mixed bag when it comes to what we do with the information we gather. The same report reveals that, “36% of Millennials have researched a company’s business practices in the past year, compared to the 29% average; and 26% of Millennials have used social media to share negative information about companies they feel aren’t living up to their promises, compared to 20% of respondents on average.”
And yet, it can be rough going, this putting your money where your mouth (or boycott) is. It turns out my Uber experience was not unique. After riding out a rocky few weeks in the wake of the #DeleteUber campaign, Uber was soon king of the ride-hailing market again. According to Alana Semuels, writing about the Uber brand boycott for The Atlantic, consumers have a conflicted relationship with company boycotts. She quotes Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management: "'A lot of people will say they want to support a boycott—they may be ideologically aligned with a boycott—but they have a harder time following through with it…'"
“A lot of people will say they want to support a boycott—they may be ideologically aligned with a boycott—but they have a harder time following through with it…” - Brayden King
It's less about the boycott, and more about the change
As noted on Mashable, success for the #DeleteUber social media campaign is actually less about the total number of riders who deleted the Uber app and stuck with it, and more about the corporate action that followed. The management shake ups and changes to Uber corporate policies probably wouldn’t have happened without the direct (and highly publicized) pressure from customers.
Because, as we all know, reputation matters, so even if sales don’t plummet, bad press–in print, online and via social media–is a major headache (or death sentence) for companies today. It can give an advantage to a competitor, and force companies to spend valuable time and resources staying on the defensive, making attracting new employees or new customers difficult.
As Semuels notes in her article, King’s research shows that "'Most companies are worried enough about their reputations that they’ll change their behavior, even if the number of people partaking in the boycott is rather small.'" And, as Uber’s experience clearly shows: "'When boycotts receive national media attention—as twenty-five percent of boycotts do—a company will react, even if sales aren’t affected.'"
Do what is personally right for you
So, as consumers, what’s the right thing to do? Faced with a sea of information and more choices than ever before, how do we ensure we’re making decisions that jibe with our personal convictions? How do we fight our magnetic attraction to cheap and convenient products or services if they’re offered by companies whose politics and policies we fundamentally disagree with?
To start, zero in on the topics that are dealbreakers for you–toxic dumping, sexual harassment, child labor. Next, take advantage of the plethora of reports and apps that enable real-time conscious choices. Finally, let the knowledge that your smartphone–not to mention your Twitter account–is a secret weapon of change motivate you to truly put your cash where your conviction is.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.