The unequal power structure between individual consumers and large corporations presents multiple issues. While corporations might be motivated by profits and work to benefit their shareholders, the consumers who buy their products and services need a way to hold them accountable when they suffer harm because of the company’s actions. Consumers can use the principles of social accountability to assess what corporations do beyond the products they offer and to act when the company engages in immoral acts.
Social accountability involves holding corporations accountable to an ethical standard through which people’s rights are protected. Businesses should offer benefits to the public’s welfare instead of solely focusing on profits and their shareholders. The rise of the internet has brought the importance of social accountability into sharp relief. Individuals have suffered harm through companies’ unethical digital practices, placing their confidential information at risk, losing privacy, and being taken advantage of through gig work that offers no benefits for low rates of pay. By holding corporations accountable, consumers might initiate positive change within business practices and in society writ large.
Different Types of Corporate Social Accountability
Social accountability involves assessing the practices of different corporations to determine whether they are moral and ethical for the benefit of individual consumers and society at large. Social accountability falls into four different categories, including social, economic, technological, and environmental. Individuals can analyze a business’s practices by considering each of the types of corporate social accountability.
Companies are socially responsible for protecting the privacy of the confidential data of employees, consumers, and others. They must also prioritize inclusion and diversity through efforts to close the digital gap between people in different social classes, age groups, industries, and locales. Their corporate practices must also be ethical with a view towards benefitting the public and society.
For example, Mastercard has been recognized for its efforts to promote inclusion and diversity and to close the digital divide through special programs through which employees work with charitable organizations to tackle major societal problems. Consumers should review the social practices of different companies to assess whether they are doing anything for the public good and the quality of their efforts.
Corporations also have economic responsibilities to people in the digital space. Being economically responsible includes when companies replace workers with robots and digital tech. It also includes when companies create new positions to ensure that they are interesting, purposeful, and pay liveable wages. For example, many people working within the gig economy work in positions that pay low wages, are repetitive, and dull. Individuals should also assess whether corporations pay fair amounts of taxes to share wealth within society and whether they are committed to preventing piracy and respecting the ownership rights of those who own data through fair compensation.
The environmental responsibilities of corporations should not be overlooked. Consumers should consider whether companies recycle and how they dispose of outdated equipment. Minimizing the consumption of power and adopting green technologies are also important. Simple steps such as extending how long older equipment remains in use can positively impact the environment. Removing confidential data from old computers, restoring them to their factory settings, and donating them to charities, schools, and people in poorer countries can also be evidence of sound environmental practices.
Holding companies accountable for their technological responsibilities include looking at whether companies responsibly create new tech. For example, creating inaccurate algorithms can result in discriminatory or unfair practices. Companies should avoid weaponizing artificial intelligence or creating deepfakes to deceive people. These unethical practices harm individuals and society. Companies that engage in this type of conduct should be held accountable by consumers.
How Technology Has Revolutionized Social Accountability
The internet, online forums, and social media sites have helped to expose unethical corporate practices. People can use these tools to hold companies accountable for their actions. Businesses are no longer able to act in a way that harms customers, individuals, and society with impunity. The old profit-focused framework followed by large corporations has slowly transformed to include aspects of social justice.
Instead of simply focusing on meeting basic legal requirements, corporations should adopt practices that integrate social justice efforts within all of their practices. Vanity projects are not enough, and consumers can hold corporations accountable online when they see through such efforts. For example, Olay posted a statement on its U.S. Instagram page on June 3, 2020, stating that the company supports Black Lives Matter. At the same time, however, it posted an advertisement on its Malaysian Instagram site promoting a skin whitening cream. Social media users were quick to point out this hypocrisy, leading to a significant backlash against Olay for its performative activism.
According to the Harvard Business Review, businesses must do more to understand social justice issues by researching them and identifying the histories behind the development of systemic inequities. They should form groups to explore how their corporate practices affect members of marginalized groups and make changes as needed. Corporations also have the responsibility to take a moral stand against problems within society and their companies and regularly evaluate their programs to ensure that they are making progress.
How Consumers Can Hold Corporations Accountable
Individuals have the collective power to hold large corporations accountable for their actions and inactions. People can take several steps to force corporations to change unethical or immoral practices through education, speaking out, boycotts, protests, legal actions, and remaining engaged.
Becoming educated about the businesses you patronize and important social issues is key to holding corporations accountable. It is important to ensure that the businesses you frequent share your values. You likely do not want to spend money at a business that actively works to undermine the social causes in which you believe. Read about the companies and their views and practices in the various social causes that are important to you. If you discover certain corporations act immorally or unethically, be prepared to act.
When a corporation engages in problematic and wrongful practices, you should speak up through various avenues. Writing online reviews of the company can help to change its approach since many consumers read reviews before buying products or services from companies. Sending a letter to the company about its practices can also help to open a dialogue through which you can emphasize the importance of change. Harnessing the power of social media by posting comments on the business’s Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media pages can also be effective. When you speak out, others are likelier to join you and try to get the corporation to change its practices. By coordinating with others, you can then build a movement to force positive change within the organization.
Consider a Boycott or Protest
Boycotts and protests can provide very effective means to hold corporations accountable for unethical or immoral practices. Protests can help to facilitate action by politicians and authorities to write laws and regulations governing businesses. For example, The Atlantic points out that protests can work because they help to undermine the legitimacy of those in power. By protesting, people can draw attention to the underlying problems that have resulted in oppression.
The Black Lives Matter protests are a clear example of how protests can create change. Following the murder of George Floyd, millions of people across the U.S. and the world protested the actions of the police and the treatment of black and brown people by those in law enforcement. These protests have resulted in moves towards police reform in Congress and within cities, including Minneapolis. The prosecution of Derek Chauvin was also made more likely by the willingness of people to speak out both through protests and in court.
The Los Angeles Times also reports that boycotts can be effective strategies for holding companies accountable. When people boycott a company and its products, it helps by impacting the business’s bottom line. Widespread boycotts might spur companies to act, and they can be easily publicized on social media. While boycotts alone might not precipitate change, they help to draw the media’s attention to the issues.
Take Legal Action
When it is warranted, you should not hesitate to take legal action against a large corporation. An example of when this might be important is when a company sells dangerous products that cause harm to consumers. Companies have a responsibility to design and manufacture products that are safe for consumers to use, and they must include adequate warnings that fully inform customers of any risks associated with their products. Unfortunately, however, many defective products are recalled each year after people have suffered serious injuries while using them in the manner intended.
For example, GM issued a recall of more than 2.6 million vehicles in 2014 because of faulty ignition switches. The faulty switches could cause the engines to suddenly shut off and prevent the airbags from deploying in accidents. At least 97 people were killed because of these defective switches, and many more were seriously injured. Evidence revealed that GM knew about the problems with the switches in its vehicles as early as 2003 but did nothing to correct them because of the anticipated costs. As a result, many victims filed lawsuits against GM to hold it accountable for its wrongful actions.
Being willing to take legal action against corporations can help to change the approach companies take. Doing so can also help to prevent others from suffering similar harm.
While it can be difficult, people need to remain engaged with the conversations surrounding corporate responsibility. It is easy to move on with the news cycle to the next story. However, when people fail to stay engaged, the problems can continue unabated. By remaining engaged in the relevant social issues and corporate practices, you can help to ensure that companies are operating fairly and ethically.
Social accountability can help to hold corporations accountable for actions and inactions that are harmful to consumers and the public. By educating yourself and assessing the companies’ practices, you can be more selective with whom you do business. Being willing to speak out, protest, and take legal action when necessary can help to improve social ills and address the responsibility of companies for creating or adding to them.