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Consumers flex their muscles

There has never been a better time to register our displeasure with how companies treat us.

There has never been a better time to register our displeasure with how companies treat us. The days of letters that were never answered and endless hours on the phone waiting for a representative to take a call that is "extremely important - please stay on the line" are gone.

Social media has enabled consumers to go on Twitter and Facebook to express their dismay - quickly and effectively - at everything, from delayed flights at the airport to substandard meals at restaurants. Use the correct tags in your posts and you may even get an apology or a special offer.

Another aspect of consumer behaviour that social media has tapped into is the boycott of specific establishments. American fast-food chain Chick-fil-A was one of the first to face this in 2011, after company president Dan T. Cathy expressed support for "traditional marriage." It took just a few hours for hashtags to appear on social media and spread the word.

Across British Columbia, more than a third of respondents to a Research Co. survey say they conduct research on the environmental, social and labour practices of companies before purchasing a product or service "all of the time" or "some of the time."

There are some slight differences, with 43 per cent of British Columbians looking into a company's environmental practices before consuming. The proportion falls slightly to 39 per cent for social practices and 37 per cent for labour practices.

There are similar proportions of British Columbians who claim to never pay attention to the environmental (36 per cent), social (38 per cent) and labour (40 per cent) practices of companies before buying a product or service.

We dug a bit deeper to see if seven specific purchasing decisions may motivate consumers to review how companies work. We continue to see about two in five British Columbians saying that they never look into the practices of companies before buying a product. There is, however, a severe generational gap. Connectivity appears to be motivating the province's millennials to go online and review what the companies they could be dealing with are up to. Baby boomers, it is fair to say, are way behind.

When shopping for groceries, only 21 per cent of millennials admit they never review a company's social, environmental, labour and/or investment practices. For baby boomers, the number climbs to 46 per cent. When buying a vehicle, 23 per cent of British Columbians aged 18 to 34 never review how the company operates, compared with 55 per cent for those aged 55 and over. About a quarter of millennials in the province never review a company's practices when going to a restaurant (23 per cent) or buying electronics (24 per cent). For baby boomers, the proportions are 54 per cent and 52 per cent, respectively.

Similar scenarios ensue on never reviewing how companies operate when buying cleaning products (23 per cent for 18 to 34, 53 per cent for 55-plus), household goods (21 per cent for 18 to 34, 50 per cent for 55-plus) and even clothing and shoes (19 per cent for 18 to 34, 49 per cent for 55-plus). It is evident that companies will have to earn the trust of millennials in a way that their predecessors never had to do before.

More than half of British Columbians (55 per cent) say they have boycotted an organization or establishment over the course of their lives. Baby boomers are slightly more likely to have voluntarily abstained from using, buying or dealing with specific organizations (59 per cent) than millennials (54 per cent).

When asked why they have boycotted establishments in the past, half of respondents (50 per cent) cited disagreement with how employees were treated or paid. Smaller proportions abandoned a company because of environmental practices (43 per cent), disagreement with the ownership (37 per cent) or its animal welfare practices (33 per cent).

The survey outlines a younger public that is changing its relationship with companies.

Baby boomers are more likely to have boycotted an establishment, but that is due to the fact that they have lived as consumers for a longer period that younger British Columbians.

If the trend of millennials being extremely choosy when it comes to the products they buy continues, it is bound to make all companies rethink their approach to social, environmental and labour practices.

Websites and social media presences will have to become more about reality than imagery.