Harnessing the Power of One


Posted by James Wheatley

In his recent series of Reith Lectures Professor Michael Sandel discusses what he terms ‘a politics of the common good’ as a reaction to the erosion of trust in the free-market system.

A politics of the common good is at the heart of Responsible Research’s mission.

In May 2009, Responsible Research conducted a major consumer research study to understand the role of responsible influences in grocery shopping. It may seem outlandish to bracket shopping with Sandel’s grand scheme for a ‘new kind of politics,’ but in fact the two are intimately connected.

As Sandel himself says, ‘a politics of the common good invites us to think of ourselves less as consumers, and more as citizens.’ In other words, when consumers are able to place their activities in a wider context – political, social, environmental – they become empowered to make responsible choices in which they act as citizens.

At Responsible Research we are committed to harnessing this ‘power of one’ – the individual consumer making a positive choice – to affect broad social change.

But habits die hard; and this is a key finding from our research. Consumers revert to type and buy the same old products with same old cost/benefit calculations that ignore such inconveniences as climate change or the exploitation of producers.

Although responsible attitudes are quite common among consumers, it is rarer for these attitudes to be put into practice.

In short, consumers are yet to be persuaded that the ‘power of one’ is theirs.

Consumers can be catalysed into responsible actions, as recent single-issue campaigns have proven, but momentum towards responsible citizenship has yet to emerge.

Large supermarkets aren’t helping here. In the wake of the global financial crisis there has been a proliferation of ‘recession-busting’ messages from major retailers. They want to offer value in hard-pressed times. They want to be the consumer’s friend. But this is not the same thing as being the citizen’s friend.

At a time when market dogma looks discredited, the supermarkets have responded by offering… more market dogma.

Responsible Research would like to see an end to the false distinction between ‘value’ and ‘responsibility’. Recently, both Tate & Lyle and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk converted all of their production to Fair-trade at no extra cost to customers, so it can be done.

And while we’re at it let’s clean up responsible messaging, simplify the terminology and eliminate the confusion that surrounds the issue in the minds of consumers and marketers alike.

We intend to give ethical marketers the insight and knowledge they need to look their customers in the eye and say ‘The power is yours.’

Tags:  Reith Lectures Trust Free market shopping politics consumers supermarkets responsible

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