The economy of the 20th century was dominated by the thinking that businesses could (and even should) minimize prices and maximize profits by externalizing or socializing as many of the costs of their products and services as possible in order to maximize shareholder profits and provide cheap disposable goods to the growing consumer class. Resources were extracted from far away lands, shipped around the world through various manufacturing processes, and sold back to people that didn’t know or even care about the impact the transaction had on those who bore the brunt of the take-make-waste system. A few things have changed that make this story unsustainable into the future.
- The population of the world has exploded (doubling in size from 3 billion to 7 billion in less than 50 years). 7 billion humans on this planet are now vying for space and resources, many of which are in decline.
- The costs of basic resources such as food, energy, water, etc. have increased or are in the process of increasing dramatically. Costs that were once predictable are now volatile and subject to the whims of nature and increased competition from the aforementioned exploding population.
- We are no longer isolated from the impact of the choices we make in the purchase and use of goods and services. Social media has made it possible to break down the barriers between those who enjoy the fruits of the developed world from those who get the short end of the stick in this process. By definition, companies that trade with the public are no longer isolated from these effects either. The citizens of the world are connecting the dots and seeing behind the clever spin tactics used to bolster the consumer economy, and they’re sharing their findings with the rest of the world.
Examples of walls coming down and curtains being pulled back abound and continue to increase as the people of the world have greater access to information and the ability to tell their stories with each other. As a result of this transformation, iPhone buyers have the information readily available to consider the conditions of the Foxconn factory where the phones are made when they’re making their purchase decision, and WalMart shoppers can choose to learn about labor conditions and wages for the massive global workforce this company employs as they decide where to buy kitchen utensils.
Brands of all kinds must answer for their impact on the societies and cultures within which they operate, as surely as they can be praised for positive behavior such as creating jobs, being good partners in the communities they do business in, and the intrinsic value of the goods and services they offer or produce. We live in a time when a quick Twitter search can deliver the pulse of the global community on any topic imaginable, in real-time. With over 2 billion people online and billions more to follow, you can be assured that this phenomenon will only accelerate. Brands will be held accountable one way or another. Smart brand stewards realize this and are seeking ways to become more responsible global citizens through their business offerings and they way they conduct themselves on the global stage.