Don't Be (Quite As) Evil Don't Be (Quite As) Evil
Business

Don't Be (Quite As) Evil

by Cliff Kuang

January 25, 2009

Corporations might start doing good instead of advertising-but only if consumers pay attention

These are scary days if you're in the ad business, and not because the economy has bolted out from under us and off into a canyon. No, it's scary because on the other side, there's more terror still, because even when consumers begin to buy again, it'll be harder to reach them. They don't buy print media; they skip past television ads using their DVRs; they ignore pop-ups and banner ads online. And even if they've noticed your ads and go shopping for your gizmo, your $300 million ad-spend might be undone by a single, anonymous reviewer on Amazon: "This product sucks."Against that background of flailing ad effectiveness, companies are shifting their ad budgets, one tiny step at a time, towards meaningful P.R., dedicated to noble causes. But what's stopping a massive company from working at a grander scale, to really do something?The unavoidable answer: It's because of you. It's because you're too uninformed, too indifferent, and too cynical. I'll explain. Consumers haven't quite yet proven that they put money where they're morals are-or that they're willing to spend the time and effort to figure out what's moral to begin with. Too often, cynicism yields to blanket indictments of "corporate America," which leaves businesses with few incentives to try harder. What really prevents big companies from investing more is the nagging fear that you, the consumer, won't notice. Or what's worse, that even if you do, you'll never reward them for it.You're probably scoffing: Name a mega corporation that's doing good. Okay: The boogieman Wal-Mart for one. Currently, the company runs a scorecard on suppliers, to ensure that they're packing their cargo trucks with maximum efficiency-thus saving millions of tons of carbon in extraneous shipping. And for a few years now, they've been propounding an ambitious plan to build energy efficient buildings, while selling more and more energy efficient products. Dell is another example-Do you even remember the last time you saw a Dell commercial? But with little fanfare, they've been promising to become carbon neutral, and squeezing the toxins out of their computers.
These companies have been relatively quiet about their efforts. In part, that's because "green" still has a long way to go before the average person understands the concept and the stakes. But another factor is that companies are simply afraid of making much out of their efforts, for fear of retribution from short-sighted, cynical activists. For example, in reporting a recent story on green consumer electronics, an industry watchdog told me of a European cell phone maker that is almost a decade ahead of its peers in eradicating toxins from its products-but won't advertise that fact because it's afraid that some tiny, unforeseen aspect of what they're doing that isn't 100% right might fuel a nightmarish boycott.Now, if you're up on these issues, you might point out that Wal-Mart actively encourages people to drive more by building stores that promote sprawl. And that Dell, no matter its intent, isn't doing much to try and shrink the carbon footprint of its suppliers-which account for perhaps 90% of the carbon embodied in one of their computers.But the present, unsustainable state of most companies is simply a fact we can't erase. We can't go back on the lifestyle and economy we've built-the one where our cities and suburbs are designed to be as far apart as possible but just barely within drivable distance, and the one where the goods we buy spring from a diffuse global network. But we can improve those systems gradually.Of course, companies have to treat their good works less like an ad budget by another name, and more like they would any other part of their business: As something that should yield measurable results. Individuals can force those sorts of changes, given the right supports. Companies, even more than governments, are good at responding to what the public demands. If they recognize that high-performing P.R. efforts are the only way to cultivate consumer goodwill, the companies will respond.How do you make yourself heard? Third parties that can vet corporations and recommend the best among them have just started to blink to life. One currently in beta is GoodGuide (no relation to GOOD), which rates products based on the environmental, health, and social impacts of their parent companies. If its user base grows large enough, it'll become too formidable for any company to ignore. But in many other decisions that you make-from choosing a TV to buying an energy monitor-you'll have to do a chunk of research on your own.That can be time consuming, but as Michael Pollan pointed out in his essay, "Why Bother," changes in our personal behavior trickle upwards; they build the mores that allow us to demand better from corporations, and that force corporations to listen. And actually they already are listening-just look at the good they're doing now. Find out. Reward them. They'll pay everyone back by investing more.
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Don't Be (Quite As) Evil