FAST COMPANY 04/05/17
By Michael Shank and Maxine Bédat
You may not realize it, but you have a lot of political power–not at the voting booth, but in the checkout line. In this new age of consumer activism, buyers are sending strong signals to American companies–with impressive results. No longer do consumers want to be the passive recipients of marketing messages, trained to purchase things they don’t want. They’re using their wallet as a weapon and fighting back.
Consider the #GrabYourWallet movement, which erupted after President Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” comment and specifically targeted Ivanka Trump’s brand. Few believed it could work, thinking that after the election things would calm down and any impact on Ivanka’s brand would be to her benefit. Many doubted the follow-through of our clicktivism generation. But the boycott grew and stores followed suit, dropping the brand. From Neiman Marcus to Gilt and Nordstrom, these major players parted ways with Ivanka, as a result of a 32% decline in sales. And while February sales of Ivanka’s brand witnessed an uptick, it’s becoming clear that consumption is political. The Ivanka boycott is just one example of individuals exercising their power at a level not witnessed of late. But there are more.
The #DeleteUber and #DumpUber movement is another example. As a result of the campaign protesting the company’s ties with the administration and its less-than-supportive response to a Muslim ban protest strike among New York taxis, Uber lost more than 200,000 consumer clients. The mounting consumer pressure also forced Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to step down from his position on President Trump’s economic advisory council. This is power.
Consider all of the boycotts happening right now. Priority targets now include Macy’s, L.L. Bean, Bloomingdale’s, Dillard’s, Zappos, Amazon, Hudson’s Bay, TJ Maxx, Lord & Taylor, and Bed Bath and Beyond, all of which carry Trump family products. And while such actions may inspire counterprotests (as witnessed in the boycott of Trump wine at Wegman’s supermarket), companies are getting the message that they have to pick a side–whichever side they want their consumers to be on.
Even a small boycott can be enough for a company to change a policy, according to research out of Northwestern by professor Brayden King. According to King’s research, for every day of national media coverage, which Trump-related boycotts can easily garner with a politically oriented press, a targeted company’s stock price will drop nearly 1%. After the news of a boycott lands in the top five most-read newspapers in America, 25% of boycotts reap a concession from the targeted company. The lesson here: When national media is involved, companies react even if there’s no impact on sales.
Our purse is one of our strongest powers, and this generation is flexing a muscle that could lead to a healthier political culture. The capitalist system, the system often mistreating our people and the planet, revolves around us, the consumer. We can make or break this system. Companies care a great deal about us.
It’s time to use the wallet as a weapon in this fight–and not just for anti-Trump campaigns. Billions of green appliances are now sold every year. In 2018, green construction will account for 3.3 million jobs in America. Hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles are now on America’s roadways. Solar panel installations on American rooftops have now surpassed 1 million. Organic food sales are seeing double-digit growth each year. That’s consumer choice in action. By supporting greener products and greener companies and denying our support to environmental and social abusers, we can radically shape the way our companies behave.
Businesses buy what we demand. As new consolidated consumer labels are developed beyond organic food, fair trade, and wind-made, it will be all the easier for us to make our voices heard. Arming ourselves with resources to guide our purchasing decisions–such as How Good and Project Just vetting–we can vote daily and in a powerful way with our dollars. We don’t have to wait until 2018 or 2020 to change America for the better or to improve social and environmental protections for our people and the planet. This election has reinvigorated the consumer boycotter, and it just might help usher in the most progressive era of environmental and social policy-making in America. Time to start voting, today.
Maxine Bédat is the CEO and cofounder of Zady. Michael Shank, PhD, teaches sustainable development at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.