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Enough of the “Me First” Economy, It's Time for “We First”

What the hell is contributory consumption? It's Simon Mainwaring's crazy idea for transforming our economy—and it just might work.

I told Simon Mainwaring he's out of his mind. He took it well, as a sign that he might be thinking big enough. His new book, which is as much a social media campaign to change business as we know it, is out this week. And that makes sense. We First: How Brands & Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World is a call to arms, to inspire customers to use their newfound Twitter power to make companies serve the world at large as well as their investors.

"I think social technology will be completely transformative for the business world," he says. In Mainwairing's new world order, the public pressure from hordes of vocal customers made public through Facebook and other online outlets will prove to a company that it has to respond to customers' values, not just give them a product.

To be clear though, his overhaul of the economy has a logical design. "I want to be to be very realistic. You can't expect people to dramatically change their buying habits or for corporations to be less self-interested than they are." That's why we have to change self-interest he says. For consumers too. All sides of our consumption habits operate on a definition of self-interest that is dangerously narrow.

"Consumers are guilty of the me-first mentality along with businesses. Consumers need to shift from mindless to mindful consumption." And now's the time, in large part because of technology, he argues. "There is a lot of technology at our disposal now. Like GoodGuide [no affiliation with GOOD] which lets you scan the barcodes of products to get social impact measurements, to joining groups that punish brand deviants."

He imagines a world of "brand nations" held accountable by an international core of zealous fan/customer/constituents checking in on the activities of the brands they like and exerting a wrath when the company strays from professed values. This is already happening in ad-hoc ways like the recent successful attack on Urban Outfitters for ripping off an artist's design from Etsy, when a swarm of crafter tweet-rage overwhelmed the brand's online presence until the product line was removed.

Then what? Watchdogging is nothing new, even if we can do it more easily with viral shaming campaigns. But Mainwaring doesn't stop there. Here's the idea of his I like the best, but also find the nuttiest.

"Every purchase needs to have a contributory portion," he says, as though that's easily implemented. "We have the opportunity to build in a contribution to social change into a retail shopping aisle," which could mean something like the Product RED campaign, where products are branded as socially motivated, or it could be systemic with each transaction. The technology is there for this already, with companies like SwipeGood, which rounds up your purchases to the nearest dollar and donates the difference. As Google Wallet and other programs of its ilk roll out, we'll start making purchases—and contributions—with the bump of a phone. So, Mainwairing wants us to be ready for an age in which doing good can be so easily integrated into basic consumer transactions, that the default is to help, not ignore, social problems, as a part of our everyday lives.

I could see a world where Levi's or Nike makes a portion of profits go to causes their customers pick. It's certainly viable for smaller companies. I've heard of at least one new startup based on this very principle (stay tuned for details). But will BP or Exxon really be pressured by Facebook status updates into channeling a portion of sales to solar technology?

"The Achilles heel is this," he says. "If consumers do not use their new voice to pressure companies to change then nothing will change." So, get tweeting about what irks you. "Unless the mom in the shopping aisle with three kids hears about Nestle endangering orangutans and chooses another chocolate and makes her voice heard about it, then nothing will change."

So friends, as always, it's on us. But we also have better tools than ever before.

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