Too big to boycott?

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Consumers, at least most of the time, have a choice whether to buy a product or use a service. When a company behaves in a way that it is at odds with your values, you are able to boycott that company, refusing to purchase their products or use their services in the hopes of reducing their revenue.

When companies dominate fields with few alternatives, it can become too inconvenient for customers to go elsewhere. When customers have no other options, companies can simply get away with not appeasing their customers by being socially responsible. 

Boycotts are an important way to keep business operating in a socially responsible way where national and international law falls short.  Facebook and Amazon are perhaps two of the biggest corporations people have been urged to boycott in recent years.

Despite years of criticism and controversy, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal made many see Facebook and its targeted and unchecked advertising in a new light. More recently, Facebook has once again once again faced scrutiny for its refusal to deal with issues of fake news and hate speech. Some have chosen to move away from the platform, but for many it has become too integral a part of our everyday lives, from staying in touch with friends, conducting business, and keeping up to date with current affairs.

Facebook has also managed to keep a firm hold of the market with its numerous acquisitions of potential competitors. Since 2010 Facebook, has acquired over 80 companies the most notable of which being Instagram and  WhatsApp. Yet its monopolistic tendencies extend even beyond dominating our digital ecosystem; its ‘Free Basics’ product, offering a free service of limited websites (including Facebook itself), to users in developing countries, enters markedly murky territory with regards to net neutrality and has further been termed ‘digital colonialism’.

Its grip on the market means  that despite criticism from all angles, it is often simply too inconvenient to do away with the service. Though users may not wish to deny Facebook their services, recently, a boycott of a different nature has been put against them. Companies have been publicly suspending their use of Facebook for advertising, denying them revenue over the lack of action against hate speech by the social media provider. 

Over 750 companies including household names like Coca-Cola,  Unilever,  and Adidas have committed to removing their advertising for July. This led to an 8% drop in share price at the end of June, equivalent to £6 billion pounds. It is yet to be seen whether this pressure from an increasing number of companies will force Facebook to address the issues in question or even last.

The motivation behind  companies’ decisions to suspend their affiliation with Facebook is likely to be more complicated that outright altruism. Though Facebook may bank on its services being essential, other companies do not always have that luxury. Publicly renouncing advertising through Facebook is for the main part an advertisement itself, an easy way for companies to tell their customers they are acting responsibly and at least believe themselves to be better than Facebook. For companies with such a hold over the market as Facebook, consumer boycotts seem ineffectual, but this news has shown how other companies will actively look to better their own position by cutting affiliations.  

This may seem like a positive development, but with brand image often being based on the strength of a company’s marketing team rather than the way it actually conducts its affairs, good companies and bad companies are less widely understood than one might expect. Indeed, Unilever, Adidas, and Coca-Cola have not been without their fair share of criticism and controversy. 

To make an informed decision about boycotting a company, it’s helpful to understand the value it delivers to society and the full spectrum of its impacts. Concepts of ‘social value’ are increasingly gaining currency as way for businesses to demonstrate societal responsibility and avoid negative press and actions like boycotts. But ideas of social value are often diffuse and hard to quantify. 

Route2 uses a systematic and research-driven approach to quantify and evaluate a company’s social worth, giving a concrete £ value to the Value2Society it generates. We work with companies to make transparent and tangible their social impact. This is not limited to their operations but extends to other companies involved in the supply chain, evaluating not simply production but including impacts resulting from the use or even disposal of products.

We base our measure of Value2Society on facts and metrics that can be systematically compared from company to company.  While we do have choice in what products we buy or services we use, we are constrained by the situations of our daily lives – for many, Amazon was becoming a corporation to be avoided, until the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown severely restricted our opportunities for physical shopping and Amazon’s grip on our purchasing habits tightened.

To make decisions about which companies you give your money to, comparability is key. It enables the consumer to understand which corporation of the choice available to them is the most responsible. They are then empowered to make a more informed and meaningful decision than simply boycotting the brand with the most bad press that week.

With social impact illuminated in this way, routes to effectively improving it become clear. Abstract aims of becoming more sustainable or societally responsible can be translated into direct initiatives and integrated into every aspect of decision making. By working with Route2 companies can better understand where the negative social drivers lie and can work towards removing them from their supply chain or offsetting their impacts if unavoidable. They can also use Route2’s metrics to explain to customers the social value they are bringing and ultimately advertise themselves as socially beneficial, strengthening corporate reputation at a time when the consumer is increasingly demanding sustained delivery of societal value.

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Route2 delivers unique insights into the total impact of business activities. We offer businesses expert advice and analysis about historical and future performance. Our services (coined Value2SocietyTM) strengthen decision making, establish competitive advantage and enhance the value business delivers to society. Route2 delivers unique insights into the total impact of business activities. We offer businesses expert advice and analysis about historical and future performance. Our services (coined Value2SocietyTM) strengthen decision making, establish competitive advantage and enhance the value business delivers to society.

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