Consumer Advocacy

One of most effective ways to pressure companies that are not responding to other forms of advocacy is to take your message directly to their consumers and enlist them as allies in the struggle. Consumer advocacy is when individuals or groups of consumers use tactics like publicity, letter-writing campaigns, and boycotts to pressure companies to change their behaviour on particular issues.

Consumers are increasingly becoming concerned about how their products are made, including the conditions of workers and the social and environmental impacts of production. The fair trade movement, which advocates for better trading conditions and higher social and environmental standards for producers in poor countries, has grown rapidly in recent years.

This organised movement consists of hundreds of consumer, importer and producer organizations, as well as standard-setting and certification organisations, which certify and label products that promote sustainable livelihoods for farmers and workers and protect the environment. The movement is especially popular in the UK, where many consumers prefer to buy products, including coffee, sugar, tea, bananas and chocolate, if they are certified as “fair trade.”

Rising consumer concern means that companies that sell products directly to consumers are now much more vulnerable to negative publicity and pressure about their social and environmental practices. Companies are aware that bad publicity about their practices, including in their supply chain relationships, can have a big impact on their sales and profitability.

You may want to consider a consumer advocacy campaign if there is a company along your investment chain that:

  • Has the ability to influence the business managing the project to make changes on the ground.
  • Has a visible brand and cares about its public image, such as retail banks that provides personal banking services to customers, food and beverage companies, or supermarket and grocery store chains.
  • Has not responded positively to direct advocacy.

Consumer advocacy will usually be used when trying to influence a buyer company (downstream), but it could also be used with a bank (upstream) if it has a known brand and retail banking business.

The first step in a consumer advocacy campaign is to raise the awareness of consumers about the issues your campaign seeks to address, such as land grabbing, and inspire them to get involved. This can be a daunting task for a small organization that isn’t based in the countries where the target consumers are, so you should look for allies that have a presence in those countries and which specialize in this type of campaigning.

The following international organizations have run consumer campaigns on land rights issues and may be worth contacting:

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There are steps that you can take to start building the platform for a consumer campaign. If you are effective, then consumer groups will often reach out to you and offer their support.

You can:

  • Set up a website, blog and/or Facebook page with information about your campaign, which names and shames the companies involved. Check out the website of the Cotton Campaign for ideas.
  • Make a compelling video that exposes the complicity of your advocacy target in causing social and environmental harms and post it to your website and to YouTube. Spread the link through social media. As an example, see this video produced by the Cambodian Clean Sugar Campaign.
  • Reach out to the media in the countries where the consumers live and inform them about your campaign, including through a media conference and media release when you launch it.

Make sure that your materials include very clear and specific campaign goals. The goals should reflect the community’s demands, but might also include the broader more systemic issues at hand, such as ending land grabbing by mining companies in your country. The Cotton Campaign, for example, aims to end forced labor of children and adults in the Uzbek cotton industry.

Let consumers know precisely what actions they can take. This could be signing a petition, or writing a letter to the CEO or directors of the company, or even staging a protest outside company offices or stores. Be sure that you provide consumers with a clear message to send in their action and tell them exactly to whom they should direct the message. You can use the online petition sites Avaaz.org or Change.org to get a petition started and mobilize support.

To boycott or not to boycott?

The oldest consumer advocacy tactic is a boycott. This is a call to stop buying the goods and services sold by the targeted company. Traditional boycotts are aimed at getting a company to lose business, which pressures it to make the change that the campaigners are seeking. There are a lot of different opinions about whether boycotts are effective or not, but most observers agree that to make an impact takes a lot of time, dedication and a lot of boycotters!

There is a risk that a boycott will not attract a lot of consumers and that the company will take this to mean that its consumers don’t care about the issue. On the other hand, calling for a boycott can sometimes be an effective way to get the media interested and obtain valuable publicity for your cause. One study, which examined 221 boycotts between 1990 and 2005, found companies were more likely to give in to a boycott campaign’s demand when the issue attracted a great amount of press coverage. The study also found that companies gave in to demands when they feared damage to their reputation, rather than because of the threat of lost sales – though the two are often linked.