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The contours of choice: the role of consumer information in social responsibility.

Awareness of social responsibility evolves as society's notions of care and concern, of righteousness and justice expand.


Mr. and Mrs. Neanderthal may not have had formalized codes of conduct, legal standards or production reports to refer to, but making socially irresponsible choices definitely posed a threat to their survival. That threat continues to be as real for individuals today as it was centuries ago. Despite efforts of governments, religions, philosophers, teachers, parents and peers, we continue to make choices which lead to us to marginalize, molest and kill one another, to destroy the environment, to perpetuate extreme poverty and to devour the resources of future generations.

Although many world views and development theories would contend that personal choice is less a cause of the present state of affairs than for example natural resources, capital, and distribution of power, etc., the effects of individual cannot be underestimated. The significant increase in the number of democracies in recent years has strengthened the role of the active citizen. (1) The growth of digital communication as a means of expressing one's opinions has provided activists and interest organizations with powerful tools. The inbuilt sensitivity of the global market to consumer decisions has transformed the consumer into a strategic economic force to be reckoned with. There is increased public interest in assuring that firms, governments and organizations behave in a more balanced, socially responsible manner and report publicly on their behaviour. Media have even begun to referring to "the user revolution".

The contours of choice leading to socially responsible consumer action are based upon values and are dependent upon relevant, quality information. As Consumers International has stated:

"In order for organizations to play a constructive role (in alleviating the negative effects of globalization), they need incentives to change their operations towards more socially responsible production and delivery of services. By means of their purchasing power and ethical buying strategies, consumers can potentially give organizations incentives to operate more socially responsibly. For consumers to use their purchasing power as incentives, and to act ethically, they need credible comparable and reliable information about the social responsibility of organizations."

Consumers International January 23, 2007

In order to better understand the contours of consumer choice in relation to social responsibility it is necessary to reflect briefly upon the following:

--the significance of values in information selection

--the availability and quality of consumer information

--instruments for using consumer information to stimulate social responsibility

1. The significance of values in information selection

Modern society confronts children, youth and adults with sights, sounds and other sensory experiences as well as language codes which are multicultural, historically complex, morally diverse and most often unrelated to their earlier impressions. The process of integrating information into meaningful units of understanding becomes extremely elaborate, difficult and for some distressing. The global culture demands quicker reactions, greater flexibility and more extensive creative capacities than ever before. In addition it requires more comprehensive morals in relation to daily activities in the market place.

Morals are based on values. Values, particularly those concerning social responsibility, have characterized the history of human civilization. They influence what information we choose to select and what we choose to ignore. There are divergent theories about the origin and evolution of values and their relation to social responsibility.

Values and the development of social responsibility

Most social systems require individual members to contribute to the maintenance of the existence of the group to which they belong. The dialectic relationship of the individual to the group creates limits to acceptable behaviour. Being socially responsible becomes a way of indicating commitment to the group and gaining mutually satisfying rewards (be they money, services, goods or intangibles like information, status, or love). Theories supporting this are often referred to as social-exchange theories and values are seen as conditional frameworks for social behaviour. (Thibaut & Kelly 1959, Foa & Foa 1976)

Other scientists contend that normative social influence combined with what some refer to as natural altruistic and empathic actions (when a person without apparent gain acts to reduce the distress of another person) form the basis for what is often called "prosocial" behaviour. (Batson & Olesen 1991) However research indicates that socially responsible or prosocial behaviour seems to dissipate when situations provide the opportunity for diffusion of responsibility. In cases where studies have been made of information interpretation and individual initiatives, a significant procent of those tested failed to respond to potential danger when in the presence of others. (Latane & Darley 1968)

This has lead to theories on the cumulative processes of socially responsible behaviour. These theories claim that individuals learn from experience how to react responsibly in given settings. Thus the "nature-nuture" dilemma applies as well to the challenge of being socially responsible. Learning responsible behaviour is considered to occur in part through trial and error and in part through conceptualizing desired outcomes of situations. Gaining insight into what constitutes positive responses involves defining what kind of life one wants to live personally and collectively. It creates the need for value identification. It also requires reflection upon what has been called the Tragedy of the Commons (Marshall 1920) or the dilemma of deciding between two or more seemingly positive values.

Religions have, throughout the ages, provided humankind with values and visions of the "ideal society" and the "noble individual". Social responsibility has been characterized as a source of integrity and moral obligation. It has been the cornerstone of nobility and is based on "love and faith". Religious values are long term commitments rather than short term personal involvements. Religious leaders have provided "hard core principles", fixed standards, as opposed to sets of soft values which can be modified under varying circumstances. The morals which religions expound function as a measuring stick or goal post against which individuals can measure their attitudes and actions.

Political systems (be they representative democracies or totalitarian dictatorships) go to great lengths to identify collective values and define visions of desired futures. They emphasize the necessity of the citizen's active participation in order for their system to function. Rules of conduct are often delineated in constitutions and charters. In democracies, who has responsibility for what is identified in general terms. Courts and laws exist to further determine who has the task of carrying out specific actions. Individual-, corporate- and governmental responsibility evolve from the priorities of a given period based on specific core values.

Evidence of corporate social responsibility can be traced back to before the 1800s. "Freedom" was a value much discussed and fought for at the time and in the 1790's English consumers boycotted sugar from the Caribbean due to slave labour. This resulted in the East Indian Company buying its sugar from "slaveless" Bengali producers instead. (4) Questions about corporate business's broader obligations to society, a "social contract, so to speak, have been debated for over two centuries. Workers rights, environmental, health and safety protection, and many other issues based on values have lead some corporate enterprises to eventually designate criteria for "CSR", corporate social responsibility, which go beyond the traditional elements of ethical treatment of customers, philanthropy and paternalism.

The actors on the world stage have for centuries been preoccupied with their particular corner and nearest neighbors. This has changed dramatically. Global values are replacing strictly personal or local values and the concepts of world citizenship and belonging to one family of humankind are growing steadily stronger. As William Greiser states, it is "One world, ready or not". (5) Alexander McCall Smith, a popular author, describes this change as: "A human blanket of love whose fibres are the threads of obligation which mean that one can not ignore the claims of others".

The majority of the abovementioned theories of the development of social responsibility agree that values do, at some point, come to exist. They evolve and provide the filters for selection of information deemed relevant. The Stanford Social Innovation Review of 2006 recently presented the concept of "The other CSR", "consumer social responsibility (CnSR)" defined as: "the conscious and deliberate choice to make certain consumption choices based on personal and moral beliefs." (6) The authors of the article support this idea by analyzing how CnSR is expressed in activity (in terms of purchasing or non-purchasing behaviour) and indicated by express opinions (as documented in surveys or market research).

The following social values are particularly worth mentioning in relation to the selection of consumer information which can contribute to social responsibility: empathy, trust, respect, cooperation, moderation, courage, and commitment.


"Do they hear you when you cry?" asks the author of a book about young girls who have been mishandled and hidden away. Fortunately, the value of empathy has contributed to increasing the interest in information about people from all corners of the globe. There is heightened sensitivity to information about how the consequences of production and consumption affect not only one's nearest family, friends, or colleagues but also human beings all over the globe. The marginalized and helpless are being heard to a greater extent than ever before. They are becoming central figures in history books, in art and media. They are the reason Fair Trade Movements have grown. No longer does one only look at GNP to define growth. Issues of well being, life quality, choice and participatory governance fill international declarations and guidelines for the human development of nations.

Example #1: Production of soccerballs. The young boy in Canada who read an article about child labour in Asia wondered if the football he owned had contributed to keeping children from going to school or having time to play. He identified with children on the opposite side of the globe and not only had sympathy for them, but empathized with them and wondered if it might be possible to do something to better their situation. His efforts initiated an international group of organisations which provide fair trade labels for footballs not made with child labour.


Consumer information has been used to advertise products, to gain competitive advantage, and to obscure undesirable information. Today's society is paradoxical in that it is characterized by continually increasing diversity while at the same time exhibiting more conformity and stereotypes than ever before. This is commonly referred to as the dilemma of homogenization and differentiation. (Goffman 1992) The world is at the same time both larger than it was and smaller. The consequent shifting of loyalties and redefining of goals have occurred both on collective and personal levels. In this sea of diversity, people are adrift and searching for ways of indicating who they are. Some commercial markets exploit this uncertainty to convince future customers that their product reflects the values and attitudes the customers are looking for. To maintain profits and continue selling, companies nurture insecurity and create discontent in order to keep customers buying. Such strategies weaken the inherent trust of the consumer that the company will contribute to their well-being and improved life quality.

Example #2: "From 1950 to 1990, total global advertising expenditure increased nearly seven times. It grew one third faster than the world economy and three times faster than world population. Ads in fiercely competitive OECD markets are now mostly about establishing brand loyalty and evoking human desires, dreams and lifestyle options ..." Market research has identified "global elites" such as teen-agers, who have the same consumption styles and prefer global brands, be they of T-shirts, jeans, pop-music or videos. Global advertising spending is well over 435 billion USD yearly. (7)

The credibility of businesses is to a greater extent than ever before dependent upon the consumer or stakeholder being able to rely on the information transmitted. This requires transparency in regard to reports, accounts, even, to some extent, developmental strategies. In the free market system where competition is fundamental to the formula for "success", openness is often considered to be detrimental to profit making. The so called "free market quicksand", officially known as: "breach of fiduciary responsibility" effectively scares many businessmen from taking steps to increase transparency because they might be accused of "acting knowingly so that profits are reduced." The question then becomes whether or not one can define "profits" in terms other than monetary ones. Are social attributes to be considered "profitable"? The answer is "no" if one is only thinking of immediate paybacks. When considering long-term benefits, the answer can be seen in another light.


Respect stems from a sense of commonality and humility both of which often open the doors to consultation and constructive cooperation. The history of consumer protection is strewn with examples of actions on the part of the producers of goods and services which have been neglectful or harmful. This in itself undermines the mutual respect which is a basic cornerstone in social responsibility. The history of nations is strewn with examples of actions on the part of those in power which have been neglectful and harmful to other groups of the population. This, as well, has undermined the mutual respect necessary for achieving social responsibility.

Example #3: Respecting patients. Nanotechnology is growing in influence. In a number of cases it has been successfully used in areas previously excluded due to lack of respect for the patients involved. Two examples are the development of microcellular leather for leprosy patients to reduce the lacerations of the foot and the expansion of the use of reconstructive surgery for fingers, noses and other body parts for lepers (Velo)


Individuals in modern society are faced with the challenge of dealing with uncertainties and constant change. Concepts such as "needs", "contentment" and "development" have altered their meaning. Whether as "watchdogs", partners or development agents, cooperation between business, grassroot communities and consumers is essential to strengthen commitments to the growth of social responsibility. Cooperation, assistance, the increased exchange of knowledge, informed debate, complaint, redress, guidance and change initiation characterize the last century. Consumer rights have been focused on since 1976. Consumer responsibilities have remained in the background. Together, rights and responsibilities form the backdrop for collective, cooperative action for a more socially just society.

Exampel #4: International cooperation. International movements have evolved, creating identities which transcended the boundaries of the nation state, for example: the rise of international news media; the Suffrage Movement for women's right to vote; the expansion of the trade Unions and the rise of the anti-slavery movement, the rapid growth of international technical organizations such as the Universal Postal Union and the Food and agriculture Organization, and humanitarian organizations such as the International Red Cross. Other examples of cooperation to achieve greater social responsibility have been the use of third party nations to mediate between two countries in dispute and the use of international commissions of inquiry and the peaceful settlement of international disputes by arbitration. The emergence of international law and a host of international Treaties and agreements over the last fifty years are also clear testimony of a world community using new methods on a global scale to achieve common good. On a more constructive, rather than merely prohibitive basis, the international agreements on multilateral aid (as opposed to purely bilateral aid) have also made a great contribution to the growth of international cooperation.


Moderation is a value not often associated with consumer affairs. Until the question of sustainable development arose, the successful businessman-community-nation was the one who broke all records for economic profit irregardless of other costs. Already in the early 1990's the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) launched the Human Development Index which analyzed how economic growth reflected human development in each country in the world. Issues related to sustainable human development were the focus of the UN World Summit in Rio de Janerio and the Summit in Johannesburg, Consumers in many parts of the world began realizing that the earth cannot bear the present rate of consumption. Scientists, environmentalists, civic activists and consumer organisations on many continents have begun highlighting the idea of "sufficiency" rather than "limitless growth", moderartion rather than luxury.


Challenging the status quo requires courage. Whether one is confronting the practices of multinational enterprises, governments or local merchants, resistance can be strong. Competition in the modern global market is intense with enormous profits at stake. Questioning corporate culture or even neighbourly mannerisms goes seldom unnoticed and can have drastic repercussions. Some examples are the Enron executive who informed on the corruption of her directors, Eva Joly, the corruption chasing lawyer who brought numerous multinational companies and government officials to court, and Veronica Guerian who challenged the Irish drug lords.


Commitment depends upon a clear sense of purpose. In the case of the consumer citizen, some of the values which define social responsibility are to be found in international declarations on sustainable development, world citizenship and global solidarity. Sustainable development as described in Our Common Future (Brundtland Report, 1987), The Rio Declaration, Agenda 21 and the Millennium Goals represent visions of the future and long-term priorities.

"Humanity has the capacity for great feats of heroism and self-sacrifice. At the same time, it has baser tendencies toward materialism, greed, and violence. For humanity's nobility to emerge, its qualities of trustworthiness, compassion, selflessness, dedication, loyalty, sacrifice, and service need to be nurtured and gain ascendancy over its selfish, baser impulses. Every individual and every culture has the capacity for manifesting this inherent nobility. It is crucial, therefore, to facilitate the unique contribution each part can make to the whole--in particular, the development and empowerment of women. The rich diversity of humankind is precisely what gives the emerging unity its spectacular beauty and power." (8)

2. The availability and quality of stakeholder information

Identifying moral principles is a primary step towards consumer action for social responsibility, but is, in itself, insufficient. The acquiring and assessing of information is a vital next step. But this is not easy--especially in modern society. Findings from recent surveys indicate that consumer "may not have enough knowledge to make responsible choices." (9) Individuals today are faced with dilemmas which cause many to become perplexed and passive. Modern everyday life has become more complex and uncertain, thus more difficult to deal with. "The world we live in is increasingly artificial and constructed; it is increasingly rich in knowledge, and yet ... increasingly opaque and incomprehensible ... The available technology ... has forever changed the way we see the world and the way we exist in it, but the price has been the destruction of our certainties and the growth of our perplexity. Paradoxically, knowledge has made us more uncertain." (10)

Sharing the burden of investigation

Most consumers rebel at the thought of having to use time and energy researching production, marketing and disposal of every candybar they eat. And although weighing risks against benefits is recognized as an important task it is also seen as being Herculean. Sharing the task of acquiring, sorting and evaluating information with researchers, governmental authorities, producers, and even media, make it less daunting.


Governments and interest organizations have contributed to quality control of commercial messages by the provision of regulatory controls and labelling which assists consumers in making more informed choices. The Nordic white swan, the ecolabel, the international Fair Trade labels and many more are efforts to ensure that specified indicators have been met. However, companies have also initiated their own labelling schemes which, together with other labels, often make relevant consumer information difficult to decipher.

Communicating science

Real and perceived risk are often experienced as one and the same thing. They are not considered conducive to the welfare of society and therefore represent a certain measure of social irresponsibility on the part of producers, marketers, etc. Research and scientific analysis provide essential information for the interpretation of signals of danger connected with lifestyles and their consequences, and with the life cycle of a product and its eventual consequences. Comparative reviews and impact assessments provide indicators and vital facts. However, these are not always easily understood by the public at large. Communicating research results is a challenge facing the scientific community. This is particularly the case in relation to risk analysis where scientists look at hazard identification, exposure assessment, and risk characterization. This includes analyzing personal versus societal risks and identifying the differences between acute and chronic risks. Sometimes it even leads to the need for scientists to suggest alternatives. The present involvement of many scientists in the so called "Sustainability Transition" is a significant effort by the scientific community to relate scientific research and findings more directly to social responsibility and sustainable development.


Media reports often present product or company performance results and feed the information flow. In some countries where commercial enterprises do not control television and radio, reports in these media are seen as being relatively reliable. However commercial control of the media is subtle and extensive. The lifeblood of most newspapers and magazines as well as television and radio stations are the advertisements they send. This diminishes their impartiality as sources of relevant consumer information. It increases the need for critical observers who can discriminate fact from advertising and place information in relevant contexts.

Example #5: A credibility gap occurred in Europe when media and health authorities spread information warning of an immediately impending, world wide, dramatic bird flu epidemic based on assumptions rather than scientific findings. Arriving on the heels of the SARS epidemic which could indeed had to be classified as global, the threat of widespread bird flu affecting human populations around the world failed to consider the cultural and physical differences between Asia rural populations and western urban lifestyles.

Interest organizations

One of the most valuable sources of quality consumer information around the globe has been consumer interest organizations. These organizations, whether they are supported by the state or by membership, provide services of both proactive and retroactive nature to the consumer. Nonetheless, not all consumer organizations have chosen to focus on the question of social responsibility. Individual responsibility in relationship to a complainant has been the norm. Modern digital communications has simplified the sharing of consumer information across national borders by consumer organizations. Many organizations have made English translations of their sites available.

The Internet

Websites sharing detailed information about products and services are becoming continually more popular. Blogs and interactive sites stimulate stakeholder involvement allowing for immediate transferral of information and appeals for collective action. At the same time, the internet opens for the presentation of information which may be entirely subjective, factually incorrect and in reality disguised marketing.

Corporate messages

Selling social responsibility has become "big business" in the recent years. When reflecting upon the availability and quality of consumer information related to social responsibility, there are aspects of corporate communication which should be recognized. One is commonly referred to as "green propaganda", efforts to convince the consumer that the producer, no matter what their previous track record has been, is now quite socially responsible. Such mismatched information flows contribute to diminished consumer trust in corporate social responsibility. At the same time contrary information provided by activists involved in "black-listing" businesses has at times proven to be based on rumour and assumptions. In addition, consumers often want information on aspects of production and delivery along the entire supply chain which producers cannot or will not reveal.

Example #6: The quandary over quality information. After years of being boycotted by environmentalists, oil giant Shell's campaigns claiming it "explores rather than exploits" have been met with doubt by many. The same has been true of Nestle's advertising in third world countries encouraging breast feeding despite decades of propaganda stating that baby formulas were better. It was not until the World Health Organization initiated Codes for the Marketing for Breast Milk Substitutes of 1984 that consumers could rely on information about the company's actions in this area.

The recent decades have testified to increased privatization of what previously has been considered public responsibility. Welfare, health, and retirement care are examples. Businesses, individuals and civil society organisations have been forced to take over tasks once considered the responsibility of the state. This has gone hand in hand with the process of increased commercialization. Social benefits, even charity, can be found at your local grocery store if you exercise corporate loyalty (as, for example, Ingles and Food Lion stores who advertise that "your" money goes to maintain soup kitchens, library services, etc). The extent to which such initiatives actually represent social responsibility can only be determined in view of the cultural and political conditions in the actual area. Thus the consumer must also have access to information on social benefits available in their neighbourhood.

Example # 7: Kindergartens: At the turn of the previous century when industrialization was increasing and more and more people were working shifts in factories, parents struggled to provide care for their under-school aged children. Numerous companies provided day care which eventually developed into what became commonly accepted as pre-school education. In many countries, kindergartens have been integrated in the official school systems and preschool care has been taken over by the state.

Popular experience

Alongside research based analysis, media-presented news and corporate communication, consumer information is often acquired through more subjective exchange of personal experiences. Individuals voice their satisfaction or dissatisfaction to each other over products or services. Friends calling each other on cell phone in shops to give advice as to which product they recommend is a growing phenomenon. This sharing of knowledge (or at times, slanting of knowledge) provides a valuable user perspective despite its highly subjective and possibly emotional nature.

Information management

The common recipe of CIA= collection, interpretation and application of information is worth remembering. As described above, the collection of consumer information comes from research results, media news, government authorities, interest organizations, online commentaries, corporate communication, or personal experience. This leads occasionally to information overload with the consequence that the recipients, in self-defence, switch off their receivers and ignore messages directed at them. Information received is not useable before it is interpreted and evaluated. Risk prevention research also shows that overwhelming focus on dangers can serve to paralyze recipients making them passive. (11)

Interpretation, as well as collection, of information is also based on values. Even in scientific investigation researchers interpret information on the basis of values. It is when the values of scientists fall outside those of the accepted norm that they are questioned. The medical activities of the Nazi's under Hitler are a clear example of this, as is that of the creators of the atom bomb. In more recent years the question of research into cloning, gene modified organisms, and stem cell reproduction been questioned on the basis of ethics.

It is not only value-based interpretation of information which steers the use of consumer information in relation to social responsibility. Certain general skills do so too. One of these is intentional or unintentional manipulation of statistics. Without necessarily going beyond the limits of ethics, interpretation of information can still be made so as to benefit one or the other side of an argument. Thus recognition of the limitations of averages and the manipulation of statistics is essential. With your head in the freezer and your feet in an oven, your average temperature will be normal.

Not all information the consumer can collect and interpret will lead him/her to be able to state with confidence that the product or producer is socially responsible. Uncertainty characterizes the present times and accepting that information can and, in many cases, is, incomplete is an important aspect of information management. In Europe this has lead to the official adoption of the "precautionary principle". For several decades, the EU has chosen to be restrictive if there are "reasonable doubts" connected to research or production. This, however, is in the process of being changed.

Despite inherent uncertainty or questionable information quality, the consumer must develop the ability to apply the available information to the dilemma at hand in order to envision and contribute to alternative solutions leading to increased social responsibility. Envisioning involves anticipating, looking ahead and adapting creatively. Various techniques are available such as: technological forecasting, scenarios, role playing, reasoning by analogy, morphological analysis, translating problems into theory, and simulation. (12)

Teaching information management

Teaching information management is one of the major challenges facing parents and educators of tomorrow's consumers. It is not only a matter of teaching about the gathering of facts and figures, mapping messages, but about the application of the information acquired. It is a matter of making value based responses to the acquired knowledge and placing these in the framework of social responsibility.

Example #8: Financial literacy. Lack of relevant information or the misunderstanding or misinterpreting of existing information concerning financial obligations has resulted in dramatic increases in individual debts amongst both youth and adults. At present more children in the USA live through bankruptcy than divorce.

3. Instruments for using consumer information to stimulate social responsibility Social responsibility is not something constant, solid, set and stagnant. It is in a state of continual transformation and dependent upon individuals being able to identify values and recognize patterns and processes. It requires the quiet change of individuals adjusting their lifestyles and the demonstrative change of groups of individuals, politicians and corporate enterprises ostentatiously translating intentions into action.

History gives us succinct examples of governments, markets, civil society organisations and individuals who have conscientiously transgressed established rules and initiated a radical reorientation of responsibility sharing. Reorientation has demanded a rethinking of earlier perceptions. The boundaries of social responsibility now encompass spheres of influence not only immediate and familiar but also regional and international. New concepts exist today such as human development, sustainability, corporate social responsibility, bioethics, global security, consumer citizenship, and world citizenship. The fact that institutions grow slowly, adjusting to situations rather than existing as perfect ideological models, has lead to the adoption of many "soft-laws" or voluntary codes of behaviour as instruments for social responsibility. These spring in part from what some researchers refer to as a "timeframe acceleration" (a legislative Dopler effect) in which there is a significant time lag between the public demand for legislation and the enacting and enforcing of such legislation.

Example 9: International guidance. Looking back, it can be seen that the conflicts of the previous century as well as the international peace movement played significant roles in the creation by the international community of tools for reconciliation, development and increased awareness of social responsibility. Already in 1815 in Vienna, today's traditions were inaugurated regarding the use of third party nations to mediate between two countries in dispute. The use of international commissions of inquiry and the peaceful settlement of international disputes by arbitration were also established by the middle of the last century. These "new" approaches to global peace were supported by the establishment first of the League of Nations and later by the United Nations and its associated organizations. The emergence of international law and a host of international Treaties and agreements of the last fifty years is also clear testimony of a world community using democratic methods on a global scale to achieve common good. In this category the most prominent example is certainly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"Alongside the economic entrepreneurship that drives markets, social entrepreneurship now drives policy debates on issues that matter for people." (13)

Stakeholder involvement

Social activism and volunteerism are in many communities the foundations of a new kind of involvement resulting in greater stakeholder participation in development and even opening the way to new approaches to policy making. The demand has come from individuals on the grassroot level (stakeholders, clients, consumers) who have in recent years requested to be involved in two-way dialogue on public concerns. Those closest to where changes are happening want to be included in the decision making process. "Humanizing of governance" or "bottom up governance" as the multi-stakeholder involvement is often referred to, provides new opportunities for stakeholders/consumers to apply their knowledge to stimulate social responsibility. Stakeholder involvement has traditionally either been restricted to complaints and redress in the context of consumer issues. In the context of civic activism it has meant jury duty in a constitutional government. Today stakeholders are still "lay judges" but in new contexts. Such participation opens for a more multilateral system empowering those on the bottom, allowing "functions (to) be carried out at the level closest to the people affected" (Strong, M.P. 1995). In addition to representing the user perspective (children, pupils, students, adults, disabled, marginalized, elderly), stakeholders can provide alternative, locally and culturally solvent solutions.

Previously the conscientious consumer focused first upon 'value for money', then consumer rights, and finally environmental- and health-safety issues. Today young consumer citizens are concerned with 'civilizing the market economy' and contributing to sustainable responsible development (in the social, economic as well as ecological sense of the phrase). The complexity of modern society and the immense amount of available information make this a formidable task. (Thoresen/Steffens 2002) Incentives do exist to encourage stakeholder involvement. Some are: social expectations, social praise, free from work with pay, possibility to contribute to the interpretation of facts, knowledge that others will do duty next time in order to maintain justice for you.

Example # 10: Numerous formalized channels for stakeholder involvement can be found. The International Standards Organization's Committee on Consumer Policy (ISOCOPOLCO (2001)) is an attempt to stimulate consumer stakeholder involvement thereby providing a means of applying information about social responsibility in consumer policy making.

Stakeholder opinion based on consensus has been required in many situations where stakeholders have tried to be heard. This has not always been conducive of frank, open consultation. Jeppe Lassoe (14) has commented on the importance of development of informative public debate with the following suggestions:

Three main paths forward:

1. Continue as before--but intensify our efforts and improve their quality

2. Break with the demand for consensus based actions and revitalize facilitation of public deliberations as an approach to social learning

3. Go new ways and connect people across local community boundaries with the assistance of new massmedias.

Civil society organizations

The individual stakeholder has opportunities for functioning independently yet researchers have registered two types of individual behaviour which seem to be on the rise: participation by protest (activities such as signing petitions, boycotting products, demonstrating, staging sit-ins, etc, aimed at giving signals to those in command without necessarily going via the elected representatives.) The second type of behaviour is participation by association (where citizens come together to lobby and further their ideas, opinions, interests directly without going through the normal decision making channels) (15) Both of these types of behaviour contribute to the need for interest organizations which can coordinate initiatives.

Such interest organizations consisting of "concerned citizens" in civil society have long been referred to as the Don Quixote's of modern society. However, as Mats Karlsson (1995) states, "Ngo's have revolutionary potential". Indeed their efforts have transformed the role of the worker, given the vote to women, and modified many practices around the globe. Non-governmental civil society organizations provide "the demand side voice", "the leveraged influence". (16) Often enhanced by Internet, they facilitate, network, translate, champion causes, raise the profile of issues which might otherwise be ignored, advocate changes, and lobby for legislature.

Civil society interest organizations face challenges as well. Some groups are one-issue, marginal groups which lack sufficient accountability. Others are emotionally lead reactionary groups rejecting scientific support. However, the great majority have committed themselves to channelling civic activism into constructive efforts for change. They have increased collaboration with research and education for example by pressing into the mainstream research topics on consumer issues related to sustainable human development. Many struggle to maintain the delicate balance between autonomy and cooperation with government and market. Civil society interest organizations have also participated in the creation of many voluntary codes of socially responsible behaviour for individuals, organizations and particularly corporate enterprises.

Voluntary codes

Though agreement grows as to the need for increased social responsibility, there has been extensive debate about who is responsible for putting the necessary controls in place. Voluntary codes, often created by a coalition of representatives from stakeholders, government and corporate interests, have been created to act as catalysts for social responsibility and as supplements to officially approved legislation. "There is a hybridization of law and market, a blurring of the distinctions separating public and private spheres" (17) Conventions and voluntary codes have evolved in an attempt to identify indicators of social responsibility for governments, corporate enterprises and civil society organizations. The fact that corporate actors have such a dominant position in determining priorities and maintaining power in society, has highlighted the need for improving the balance between freedom for commercial endeavors and the safeguarding of consumer rights, social development and environmental quality. (Consumers International; 2006).

Example # 11: Voluntary codes "Design specification smoke alarms have saved more lives than all the fire trucks in Australia. Coronial inquiries show that most deaths occur before the fire truck arrives. Smoke alarms have saved many lives by enabling people to put out the fire before it escalates." (Neil Bibby, Chief Fire Officer, Victoria, Australia)

Voluntary codes are "commitments not required by legislation or regulations. They are agreed upon by one or more individuals or organizations and are intended to influence or control behaviour. They are to be applied in a consistent manner or to reach a consistent outcome." (18). Voluntary codes have, as Benjamin Cashore explains, pragmatic, moral and cognitive legitimacy. They tend to be innovative and serve as a new framework for expressing policy rules based on multi-stakeholder opinions. They are characterized by having either information-oriented approaches, dialogue-oriented and participatory approaches or a combination of these. While not obligatory, codes can provide a means of identifying the commitments of a company, government or organization and can even provide a competitive advantage. In many cases voluntary codes build upon the recognition of the diversity of existing national legislation, the interdependence of the global community and the essential unity of mankind.

Corporate enterprises have developed a variety of codes related to corporate social responsibility which delineate process and performance criteria as well as profit and cost analysis, at times even including upstream and downstream in the life cycle analysis. Voluntary codes of conduct and corporate ethical trade initiatives have also been seen as controversial and being only corporate crisis management (19) Negative publicity is met with "We care" public relations campaigns.

Example # 12: Corporate Social Responsibility: The following companies were among some of the earliest who established codes related to social responsibility. GAP line formed a code of conduct for treatment of overseas workers (particularly women) in textile factories; Sustainable Forestry Practices in Canada were codes for ecological procedures in forestry. The "Responsible care codes" were made by the Chemistry Producers association. Levi Strauss initiated in 1992 "Global Sourcing and Operating Guidelines" requiring suppliers and sub-contractors to adopt codes of labour practice.

Partnerships between governments, markets and civil society organizations (as direct representatives of stakeholders) have lead to many codes, treaties and declarations on issues of social responsibility. Reports indicating the degree of compliance to these codes and treaties are valuable instruments for consumers when assessing the degree of social responsibility connected to a business or product, organization or government. It is beyond the scope of this article to offer a complete description of all of these, but a brief overview of some of the most prominent follows:

The International Labour Organisation and its Tripartite Declaration was a significant step towards the expression of global criteria for acceptable employee practice. The document which became part of ILO's charter was a part of the Treaty of Versailles and "embodied the principle that universal and lasting peace can be founded only on the basis of social justice." (20)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 states that "every individual and organ of society" has the responsibility to strive to "promote respect for these rights and freedoms" and "by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance". Implementation relies not only on the UN member states, explains the Declaration, but also on other members of society. (21)

Religious based investment funds for social development were created during the 1900's and initiated the public practice of socially responsible investment connected with a number of issues such as environmental protection, anti-alcohol movement, and fair employee treatment. Vast sums of money were and are channels through these instruments. (22)

International covenants on civil and political rights were created in 1966 as tools to protect the rights of minorities, children and certain nations. In addition to these one must mention WHO Codes concerning health and safety.

United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index was launched in the early 1990's and has provided information on human development around the globe. This Index is a significant indicator of the growth of social responsibility.

Example #12: Human Development " The basic purpose of development is to enlarge people's choices. In principle, these choices can be infinite and can change over time. People often value achievements that do not show up at all, or not immediately, in income or growth figures: greater access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services, more secure livelihoods, security against crime and physical violence, satisfying leisure hours, political and cultural freedoms and sense of participation in community activities. The objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives." (23)

The UN Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment lead to the establishment of the United Nations Environmental Program which in turn has been responsible for The UN Charter for Nature of 1982 and the UN Montreal Protocol (to phase out the use of ozone depleting chemicals). This came hand in hand with the World Conservation Strategy of UNEP, IUCN snd WWF. In 1989, as a consequence of the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska, these three institutions formulated the CERES principles (a ten point code of corporate environmental conduct).The CERES principles lead to the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative which is discussed below). In 1992 in connection with the UN Earth summit, the Rio Declaration was adopted, further defining obligations related to sustainable development. The Framework Convention on Climate Change, on Biodiversity, and a UN Convention to combat desertification were created. One of the most widespread instruments for stimulating social responsibility and sustainable development arising from the Rio Summit was Agenda 21, focusing on "thinking globally while acting locally." Parallel with these activities was the establishment of the Business Council for Sustainable Development.

"Nearly two-thirds of the ecosystems services on which human society depends are being degraded or used unsustainably." Claims the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report. Impact analysis programs are valuable tools in assessing ecological consequences of production and consumption. Among other impact assessment projects the EMAS, Eco Management Auditing System (EU) is particularly noteworthy.

OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises came into being in 1976 and was based on consensus of all the OECD member states as to what constitutes responsible business behaviour. The revised Guidelines of 2000 state that enterprises should apply the Guidelines wherever they do business, not only within OECD countries. (24)

Declarations from the UN Summit on Social Development of 1995 and the World Conference on Women, and Convention of Children's rights.

At the Davos World Economic Forum, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called on business to launch a voluntary corporate citizenship initiative involving business, labour, civil society organizations and governments. The UN Global Compact consists of ten principles of behaviour within the categories of Human rights, Labour standards, Environment and Anti-corruption. (24). It functions as an interface between business and the UN and has its permission to operate from the UN general Assembly.

Global Reporting Initiative is a multi-stakeholder standard setting organization whose Sustainability Reporting Guidelines include many of the internationally recognized environmental and social standards. It is an official collaborating senter of the UNEP and works closely with the UN Global Compact.

The Ethical Trading Initiative, the Fair Labor Association and Social Accountability International (SAI) were organizations formed in the late 1990's to verify the implementation of ethical code compliance. This involved various forms of private standard setting.

In 1997 Fair Trade Labelling Organization was founded to assist national labelling organizations in setting fair trade standards.

In 2002 the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg emphasized the importance of voluntary initiatives to improve social responsibility and called for an intensified dialogue between stakeholders and enterprises and the communities where they operate.

International Standards Organization introduced in 1996 ISO 14000 which contained environmental management standards followed by ISO 9000 a more general environmental standard. The ISO is presently in the middle of a three year process formulating guidance standards for social responsibility.

The Marrakech 10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production is voluntary code connected to sustainable development.


"Our biggest challenge in this new century is to take an idea that sounds abstract--sustainable development--and turn it into a reality for all the world's people ... This is essentially an educational enterprise." (Kofi Annan UN press release 15/03/01)

Responsible, sustainable production and consumption are integral aspects of human development and thus education is an essential instrument in turning these ideas into reality. By stimulating foresight and consequence analysis, testing alternative scenarios, and facilitating the flow of knowledge, research can stimulate awareness of social responsibility. But the main chores remain the teacher's: to teach controversial issues, to galvanize social involvement and to encourage individualism and innovation.

The United Nation's general Assembly has created the Decade for education for sustainable development (2005-2014) requesting curriculum reform, new teaching and learning methods, and intensified educational focus on the issues of sustainable development.

Teaching consumer citizenship

"The new social movements, especially ecological movements, have already worked out a concept of environmentally conscious consumption to which socially and politically conscious consumption has been added. What may have begun as a drive towards consumer sovereignty in advanced capitalism can also move in the direction of consumer citizenship in which individuals consider consumption as an active political, social and ecological practice." (Isin & Wood, 1999)

Consumer citizenship education encompasses attitudes, knowledge and skills connected to functioning in today's society. It is responsibility learning which aims to contribute to the individual's ability to manage his own life as well as participating in the stewardship of the global society's collective life. Consumer citizenship education is interdisciplinary and cross curricular combining civic training, environmental education and consumer education.

Consumer citizenship education deals with "empowering students to develop and evaluate alternative visions of a sustainable future" and motivating them to turn these visions into reality. It has as its main aspiration to contribute to the individual's integrating of democratic ideals with personal aspirations thereby assisting in the evolution of a civilized international market. Consumer citizenship education is intended to help students gain insight into the processes and systems of human development on a global scale. Which systems and processes must be maintained and which are defective and in need of alteration? What is the individual's role in relation to the larger mechanisms of governments and the private sector? How can the citizen-consumer influence production, distribution, marketing and sales? Which rights and responsibilities exist and which are lacking for oneself and for others? How can changes be made, by whom and when?

Consumer citizenship education encompasses five basic generic skills are essential to learning to be responsible. These are: communication skills, decision making skills, problem solving skills, creativity, and change management. Consumer citizenship Education deals with the following main topics:

--Consumption in the past and present

--Making choices--practical and ethical aspects of making choices as a consumer

--Managing resources--planning, using and protecting resources

--Solving problems--diverse strategies for conflict resolution for the consumer

--Contributing to the future--change management and social involvement

For more details see: Consumer Citizenship Education Guidelines on the Consumer Citizenship Network website

World Citizenship

Tomorrow's actors on the stage of the global community will have been educated by individuals today who struggle to articulate the priorities of the future, individuals who through their lifestyle choices attempt to make a commitment to a new world order, a more just global economic- and social system. There are indications that a universal global identity may exist beneath the trappings of shifting commercial conventions. There is growing recognition that world citizenship may be the next necessary stage in achieving greater social responsibility and human development.

The essential difference between local/national citizenship and world citizenship is neither the patterns of behavior nor the power wielded, but the priorities chosen. The world citizen, according to those who have, together with the United Nations, tried to propagate this concept, acts on the principle of the oneness of the human race, which encompasses tolerance and brotherhood, appreciation for the richness and importance of the world's cultural and social systems, and those traditions which contribute to a sustainable, global environment and world civilization. When attitudes like these are firmly integrated into behavior patterns,--whether in relation to institutions, the private sector or other individuals in a social setting--they provide essential impulses towards progress towards a socially responsible, just and safe world.


(1.) United Nations Development Program, The Human Development Report 2002, Oxford University Press, UK, 2002.

(2.) Vetlesen, Arne Johan;& Henriksen, Jan-Olav; Moralens sjanser i markedets tidsalder; Gylendal, Oslo, 2003.

(3.) Mayor, Fredrico and Binde, Jerome; The World Ahead; UNESCO Publishing/Zed Books, London/New York, 2001.

(4.) The Economist, "Corporate social responsibility: Lots of it about2 December 12, 2002.

(5.) Greider, William; One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic og Global Capitalism, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997.

(6.) Devinney, Timothy; Auger, Patrice; Eckhardt,Giana; Birtchnell, Thomas; "The Other CSR", Stanford Social Innovation Review Fall 2006.

(7.) United Nations Development Program; Human Development Report 1998, Oxford University Press, UK, 1998.

(8.) Office of social and economic development, Baha'i World Center, Haifa, Israel; Palabra publications USA, 2000.

(9.) Devinney, Timothy; Auger, Patrice; Eckhardt,Giana; Birtchnell, Thomas; "The Other CSR", Stanford Social Innovation Review Fall 2006.

(10.) Brunner, Jose Joaquin; 'Postmodernidad y globalizacion,'.

(11.) Olsen, Roy; Stakeholders in Risk Communication (STARC); EU's 6th Framework for Research; Science and Society; 2006.

(12.) Zaltman, G. & Duncan, R.; Strategies for planned Change; Wiley&Sons, NY, 1977.

(13.) UNDP Human Development Report 2002, Oxford University Press, UK, 2002.

(14.) Laessoe, Jeppe; "Twelve ways to further public participation" (12 veje til fremme af den folkelige deltagelse);; Stiftelsen Idebanken; Oslo, 2006.

(15.) Rolan-Levy, Christine& Ross, Alistair; Political learning and citizenship in Europe, Trentham Books, UK, 2003

(16.) Webb, Kernaghan, ed; Voluntary Codes, private governance, the public interest and innovation; Carlton University; Canada; 2005.

(17.) ibid. S. 11

(18.) Wood. S.; "Green Revolution or Greenwash?"; Voluntary Environmental Standards, Public Law and Private Authority in Canada" in New Perspectives on the Public-Private Divide; Vancouver, Canada, UBC Press; 2004.

(19.) Klein, Naomi; No logo;HarperCollins, UK, 2001.

(20.) Per


(22.) Social Investment Forum, 2003, Report on Socially Responsible Investing Trends in the United States; Washington December 2003.

(23.) Mahbub ul Haq, UNDP Human Development Report, Oxford University Press, UK, 2006.

(24.) =,2340,en_2649_34889_2397532_1_1_1_1,00.html


Associate Professor Victoria W. Thoresen

The Consumer Citizenship Network

Hedmark University College, Norway

20 April 2006, ACCI, St. Louis, USA
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Author:Thoresen, Victoria W.
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Date:Jan 1, 2007
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