Friday, August 28, 2015
I’m the socially-conscious consumer that regulators and NGOs think about when they write disclosure legislation like the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals law that I discussed last week. I drive a hybrid, spend too much money at Whole Foods for sustainable, locally-farmed, ethically-sourced goods, make my own soda at home so I minimize impacts to the environment with cans and plastic bottles, and love to use the canvas bags I get at conferences when I shop at the grocery store. As I (tongue in cheek) pat myself on the back for all the good I hope to do in the world, I realize that I may be a huge hypocrite. I know from my research that consumers generally tell survey takers that they want ethically sourced goods, but they in fact buy on quality, price, and convenience.
I thought about that research when I read the New York Times expose and CEO Jeff Bezos’ response about Amazon’s work environment. As a former defense-side employment lawyer and BigLaw associate for many years, I wasn’t in any way surprised by the allegations (and I have no reason to believe they are either true or false). I have both provided legal defenses and lived the life alleged by some former and current Amazonians. But now that I research and teach on corporate social responsibility and strive to be more socially conscious myself, can I in fact shop at Amazon? I considered this because I ordered almost a dozen packages to be delivered to me over the past weeks. I was literally about to click “order now” for another delivery when I was reading the article. And then I clicked anyway.
I confess that I may be the consumer discussed in an article I cite in my research entitled “Sweatshop Labor is Wrong Unless the Shoes are Cute: Cognition Can Both Help and Hurt Moral Motivated Reasoning.” As the authors point out, “Our findings show that consumers will actually change what they believe if they strongly desire a product … As long as companies continue to create value and maintain loyalty, it is likely store shelves won’t see ‘sweatshop-free’ products.”
I’ve argued that for that reason, consumers generally don’t have as much impact as people think. While hashtag activism in an era of slacktivism may raise awareness in social movements, I’m not sure that it does much to change company behavior, with the notable exception of SeaWorld, which has seen a drop in attendance after a CNN story about treatment of killer whales and subsequent calls for boycott.
Maybe I’m wrong. I look forward to seeing what, if anything, Costco shoppers do when/if they learn about the putative class action lawsuit filed this week in California claiming that Costco knowingly sold shrimp farmed by Thai slaves and misled consumers. According to the complaint (which has graphic pictures), “this case arises from the devaluing of human life. Plaintiff and other California consumers care about the origin of the products they purchase and the conditions under which the products are farmed, harvested or manufactured. Slavery, forced labor and human trafficking are all practices which are considered to be abhorrent, morally indefensible and acts against the interests of all humanity.” The complaint also cites Costco’s supplier code of conduct and notes that its practices are inconsistent with its statement of compliance with the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act, another name and shame disclosure law meant to root out slavery and human trafficking. This is the first US lawsuit related to these kinds of disclosures, but may not be the last.
Costco was supposed to be one of the good guys with its fair wages and benefits compared to its competitors and its “reasonable” CEO salary. This favorable PR has likely cloaked Costco with the CSR halo effect, where consumers believe that when a company does something good for workers, for example, the company also cares about the environment, even though there may be no relationship between the two. This may cause them to spend more money with the company, and some believe, may cause regulators to look more favorably upon a firm.
Will socially conscious consumers stop buying at Costco? Will they stand their ground and rush over to Whole Foods? Although I don’t have a Costco card, I admit I have considered it because I liked the labor practices and for years have refused to shop in another big box retailer because of its treatment of workers. I’m also interested to see what investors think of Costco. What will the shareholders resolutions look like next year? In 2015, the only shareholder proposal in the proxy concerned “reducing director entrenchment.” How will this lawsuit affect the stock price, if at all?
Next week I will explore the Wal-Mart decision to stop selling assault rifles. Did Trinity and other socially-responsible investors get their way after all?? Wal-Mart’s CEO says no, but I’m not so sure.