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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Barrera

Supporting impactful businesses: what can I do as a consumer?

As more and more businesses increase their social responsibility footprint, how can we ensure that our impact as consumers goes as far as possible? And, how do we decide where we should spend our money?

While my CSR work offers me a unique lens on social impact, I recognize the effort it takes to know which companies are "worth" supporting. It requires time and research, and many of us simply don't have the liberty of spending all day doing this unless it's our full-time job.

We cannot expect ourselves to know the ins and outs of every company, nor to always get it right, or even blame ourselves—especially when, such as the case with many environmental issues, it's companies that hold the most responsibility.

But here’s what I know:

businesses need consumers to thrive.

Without us, there would be no business. So, how do we hold businesses more accountable for adapting and responding to the growing needs of our planet and its populations?

In this post, I share strategies for thinking more mindfully about where your investments go, as well as some of the common pitfalls I’ve witnessed—both as a CSR consultant and as a consumer myself.

Here are some things to consider:

1. Shifting away from cancel-culture and moving towards accountability

Over the past year, I’ve heard a lot of backlash on the idea of cancel culture. While many folks in my network had their reasons for not supporting certain businesses, I also saw people growing frustrated with this idea. While this might be an unpopular opinion, I understand both sides of this argument.

When a company fails to act or respond appropriately for the benefit of society, I believe they should be held accountable. However, holding a company responsible is not the same as canceling the business altogether.

Reinvesting your resources out of businesses you disagree with and directing them to socially responsible organizations is a good thing, but remember: perfection isn’t the end goal, nor is it realistic.

Not all companies are going to get it right on the first try, even the ones with social impact in their DNA. That's why we need to speak up when we see something that isn't right. We need to give businesses the opportunity to take our needs, as consumers, into consideration.

When folks cancel, stop supporting, or otherwise boycott a business, it sends a powerful message to that organization’s leadership: consumers are paying attention.

When we hold businesses accountable, we tell them that we expect more.

2. Don’t forget your power as a consumer

It might seem like our individual actions are irrelevant, but even when we’re not choosing, we’ve already made an impact.

Every dollar you spend is like a vote. Do you vote for organic vegetables at the supermarket? Do you vote for the family who runs your favorite restaurant in town? Do you vote for your cell phone company or your internet provider?

And, what won’t you vote for? This is where values come in.

3. How do your personal values shape the issues that matter to you?

Asking yourself what you value can be one of the most important things you do. Especially when it comes to values and company behavior, the two are inextricably linked. Think of Trader Joe’s, a company well-known for its superb employee benefits and workplace culture. If you choose to shop at their stores, you are directly supporting their efforts. Where do you want to place your support?

Another thing to consider: what issues have impacted your life or those of your loved ones?

One example is the millions of lives lost to cancer each year. Maybe you’ve been impacted by this in some way, so next time you consider donating somewhere, you might look up funds for cancer research. As you look into cancer research, maybe you begin to think about disparities within access to education.

Some foundations, such as the Elizabeth and Phill Gross Family, have donated over $5 million just this past year to close the racial gap in cancer research, focusing specifically on bringing more Latino and Black clinicians and researchers into the field. Now, you’ve narrowed in your focus.

When we make social impact personal to us, we can later expand our impact within the greater community.

The point, of course, isn’t to only invest in causes or issues that affect us; rather, we can start with these issues as a jumping-off point. When we can imagine the possibility that our money has an impact on the issues that matter most to us, maybe we’ll reconsider where we spend it.

To discover where you should spend your money, first define what social responsibility means to you.

To me, social responsibility is about considering how my choices make an impact on a larger group of people beyond myself. And this is a process that takes time. And remember, it’s okay to change your mind as you acquire new information.

4. Allow yourself, and companies, to evolve and change

If today, we view one company as “good” and tomorrow, we find out something about that company that makes us question whether their business aligns with our values, we’re allowed to make a different choice—and vice versa. Just because you stopped supporting one business last month doesn’t mean you can never buy from them again if they make new changes.

Taking a step back and recognizing all the ways you already vote every day, choosing where (and where not) to spend your money, even unconsciously, is the first step.

As you embark on this journey, what do you notice about your consumer habits?

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