One way 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. Consumer advocacy involves motivating members of the public who are a company’s customers or potential customers to send a message to the company through petitions, letter-writing or social media. Some consumer advocacy campaigns involve boycotts, a public commitment not to buy the goods or services of a company, to pressure the company to change its behavior on a particular issue.
Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about how the products they buy are made, including the conditions of workers and the social and environmental impacts of production throughout supply chains. 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 damage to their brand reputation, including in their supply chain relationships, can have an impact on their sales and profitability.
You may want to consider a consumer advocacy campaign if there are companies in the investment and supply chain of the project you are challenging that:
- Individually or collectively have the ability to influence the project to make changes on the ground, usually because it’s an important buyer or source of financing
- Have a visible brand and care about their public image
- Have not responded positively to attempts at direct engagement.
This strategy can be used to target any actors in the investment and supply chain that have a public-facing brand and may be vulnerable to reputational damage in the eyes of its customers. This can include companies that sell products like cars or confections that contain components or ingredients that originate from harmful mines or plantations. It can also include banks or insurance companies that provide personal banking or insurance services to the public and also provide financial support to harmful projects.
Tip: Consumer advocacy and “ESG” funds
There is a growing movement of people who seek to only invest their money in companies with good environmental, social and governance (ESG) corporate policies and practices. They do not want to invest their money and profit from companies that contribute to human rights abuses or environmental destruction. These people collectively invest trillions of dollars globally in funds advertised as responsible or sustainable, known as ESG funds.
If you find through your investment chain research that the company contributing to human rights and environmental harms is listed in ESG funds, it may be worth conducting media advocacy, especially social media campaigns, that alert potential customers of those funds about the harmful company in its portfolio. This may trigger actual or potential customers of the ESG fund to write to the fund manager, but more likely, the negative publicity itself will make the fund manager pay attention because of the reputational damage and potential of losing customers. You can use our ESG Fund Tracker to find out if the company you are targeting is listed in an ESG fund.
The first step in a consumer advocacy campaign is to raise awareness among consumers about the issues your campaign seeks to address 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 that specialize in this type of campaigning.
The following international organizations have run effective consumer campaigns and may be worth contacting for support:
- Set up a website and social media accounts with information about your campaign. The website and/or profile can provide information about the issues, and name the companies involved. They can ask people to take actions, like send letters, sign petitions, or tweet with particular messages using the companies’ handles (usernames). Check out the website of the StopEACOP 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. See Media Advocacy for more guidance on how to ‘pitch’ the story effectively.
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 issues at stake, such as ending land grabbing in your country or promoting inclusive and clean development. The StopEACOP Campaign, for example, aims to stop the construction of a massive oil pipeline through Uganda and Tanzania. It also seeks to promote sustainable energy alternatives to the oil and gas industry in East Africa.
Let consumers know precisely what actions they can take. This could be signing a petition, sharing specific posts on social media, 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 by Avaaz or Change.org to get a petition started and mobilize support.
Tip: 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.