We are living in a historical era akin to the 18th century Enlightenment. That was when social philosophers threw out many former paradigms that had dominated human societies for millennia -- royalty, aristocracy and serfdom. In their place, they invented the new frameworks of human relationships, such as democracy and free market capitalism.
Today, we are entering another era of momentous change, when we have a chance to alter some of our own dominant paradigms. We are in a unique moment when average citizens, not philosophers, have the power to change the world yet again by reinventing capitalism.
Using their leverage as customers, citizens can reset the path of an economic system gone haywire. They can put an end to many of the counterproductive flaws and maladaptive behaviors that have been allowed to creep into this otherwise valuable economic system. I'm referring to modern capitalism's reckless pursuit of profits rather than purpose, its tolerance of greed and gluttony, its loss of basic human values and ethical principles, its disdain for sustainable business practices, and its disregard of human dignity and fundamental notions of fairness and equality.
These are all serious problems plaguing the version of capitalism endorsed by many on Wall Street and within too many corporate boardrooms today. These are the attitudes and behaviors that led to the financial meltdown of 2008 and the ongoing economic quagmire we now face in which the original capitalist notion of social prosperity for everyone is rapidly disappearing. If we allow these practices to continue, they will choke the engine of capitalism, jeopardizing the possibility of building a better world for everyone.
Consumers can change this situation if they are willing to get serious about social transformation. More than ever before, consumers have the ability to unify their voices and coalesce their buying power to influence corporate behaviors. Through their own actions, customers can hold companies responsible to higher standards of social responsibility. Through collective action, they can leverage their dollars to combat the force of those investors who myopically pursue profits at the expense of the rest of society.
Here are 10 specific actions that consumers can take to apply pressure on corporations and reshape how they practice capitalism:
The most impactful way consumers can assert their power is to become mindful shoppers, giving their dollars only to socially responsible companies. In today's world of social media and smart phones, this is easy to do. Dozens of Internet sites, like brandkarma.com, are available for consumers to research the most responsible companies from which to buy. Smart phone apps like the GoodGuide can guide them right in the shopping aisle. They can join or start a private shopping club that emphasizes responsible products.
Channel your business dealings to certified B Corporations, companies that have passed a rigorous assessment and process to ensure their commitment to socially responsible business practices. The B Corp certification process weeds out companies that greenwash, localwash or causewash in an effort to fool consumers, all the while maximizing profits for shareholders. There are currently 415 B Corps involved in 54 industries across the U.S.
Move your personal investments and retirement funds to socially responsible investment (SRI) funds that support only those corporations that uphold higher standards of behavior. Returns on SRI funds are usually equal to, if not better than, many of the well-known traditional mutual funds.
Support social entrepreneurs who start businesses with the mission of providing goods and services for a purpose, often using a low- or nonprofit business model to compete with for-profit corporations. Or become a social entrepreneur yourself.
Emphasize purchases that support causes. One way to do this is to buy products affiliated with a cause-marketing campaign, often from traditional corporations that agree to donate to a cause for each purchase you make. Or join SocialVest, which has gotten hundreds of retailers to agree to return a percentage of each purchase to an escrow account that each consumer controls and decides what cause to donate their money to.
Get involved in social activism online and offline. Use social media to connect with other consumers participating in a movement for change. Help disseminate news about good and bad corporate practices. Organize real life boycotts or buycotts. Write product reviews, contribute to blogs and become a content producer, distributor or curator of information. Work with others to leverage the voice and buying power that hundreds of millions of consumers could bring to the table.
Lobby with other consumers for your favorite companies and brands to create a social contract that recognizes their responsibility to the planet, to their communities and to customers to build a better world, not just exploit their business relationships only for profit.
Use technology to contribute to social change as often as you can. Text donations using your smartphone, or register your credit cards with SwipeGood which rounds up your purchases to the nearest dollar and uses the proceeds to donate to charities of your choice.
Engage in positive dialogue with brands to show them the benefits they can gain if they partner with consumers on behalf of social change initiatives.
Celebrate and reward brands that endeavor to pursue socially responsible leadership. Publicize them to your friends, buy their products, and hold them up as models of the future you want all businesses to emulate.
These ten actions are the foundation of a powerful campaign consumers can conduct to redirect capitalism away from a system built on profit-for-profit's sake that leads to nothing less than global economic and social dysfunction. If our era is to be a renaissance of enlightened thinking that has an impact on the world, it must come from consumers owning their voices and using their leverage to encourage corporations and investors to embrace socially responsible capitalism.