It’s Time To Demand Responsibility From Consumers, Too

From Media Post Blogs (7/22/09)
By Hugh Hough

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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