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Empowered Consumers Can Change the World – But Will They?

Living Our Values: More Expensive? Sometimes. Inconvenient? Maybe. Worth it? The jury is still out.

My online profile offers up what I consider my personal 'mission statement' - At the intersection of communications & sustainability, I help companies live their values & tell their authentic stories.

As a staunch believer in corporate responsibility and transparency, I recognize that there is a risk as well as a reward associated with transparency because it makes you vulnerable by exposing things that might cause stakeholder (customers, employees, owners/investors, suppliers, communities, government regulators and legislators and even competitors) backlash. At the same time, of course, the opportunity in being open is that it allows those stakeholders who share your values to offer their support.

At the same time, many companies fear the backlash that being open can bring, if the reality that they expose is viewed as 'negative.' Google faced unfortunate, and in my mind misguided, criticism when it took the first step toward managing its energy use and sourcing by revealing its massive energy footprint.

More recently we have seen a groundswell of people both criticizing and supporting Chick-fil-A's founder's stance on traditional marriage.

Chick-fil-A has done the right thing by being transparent. I believe that the more that stakeholders know about a company the better they are able to make informed decisions about whether to favor or punish that business.

Now it is up to consumers (as well as suppliers, communities, etc) to act. Will they be moved to change behavior in favor or against the company as a result of the increased attention this issue is getting? It is hard to predict because the past offers little indication. On this issue there are clearly two schools of thought.

Interestingly, while people returned credit cards and there was an effort to organize boycotts of Exxon after the Valdez oil spill, BP sales saw no such dip after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill. Somehow both companies have enough customers to be incredibly profitable. People were bothered by the working conditions in Apple supplier FoxConn's factories but sales of iPads and iPhones do not seem to have diminished, the desire for convenience trumping the 'outrage' at how people on the other side of the world may be being treated.

We 'vote with our dollars' each time we make a purchasing decision. We support the established economic, political, social and faith paradigms by supporting (or starving) them financially. And while some people find themselves limited in their choices due to economic necessity or geography, many of us have the power to choose. Ultimately consumers must face the decision - are we willing to pay more, travel further or even do without in order to reward companies (and systems) that share our values or do we turn a blind eye and become passively complicit?

John Friedman is Sustainability Manager at WGL. Prior to that, he headed corporate responsibility communications for Sodexo worldwide. He is an award-winning communications professional and internationally recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years' experience in internal and… [Read more about John Friedman]

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