I wrote We First because, like many others, I was struck by the desperate need for change that was evident all around the world: the number of people who have lost their homes, jobs and livelihoods here in the United Sates; the millions of people around the world who are living below the poverty line, desperate for clean water, shelter or education; the way we are treating the environment, which is simply unsustainable; and business practices that serve the interests of a shrinking number of very wealthy people while leaving the rest of the world struggling to survive. But the fact is that, tragically, none of this is new. These problems stemming from how we treat the planet and how we practice business may have gotten worse, but they have been persistent for some time here in the United States and all around the world. So why do I think social media can do anything different?
The premise of We First turns on the ability of social media to connect individuals around shared values. That, I believe, is potentially transformative because any substantive change has always been a function of people taking collective actions around common beliefs. As such, social media is a keystone of We First thinking because it allows us to engage the last large, untapped resource for scaling social change: the private sector.
Social media makes this shift within the private sector possible because it gives consumers a voice of their own for the first time. It allows consumers to speak to brands, to organize themselves into groups with effectively no barrier to entry, including cost, geography and time. This is important because it enables consumers, for the first time, to leverage their buying power, which ultimately is something that corporations cannot afford to disregard, both because of their fiduciary duties to their shareholders and because of their own self-interest.
By giving consumers a way to organize themselves and be heard, the dynamics within the private sector have fundamentally changed. As we have seen over the last few years, what emerged is a social business marketplace in which brands and consumers co-author the stories that are told, where consumers are equally capable, if not more sophisticated, at using social media tools to create, produce and distribute content that may speak favorably or unfavorably about a brand.
The result is more and more corporations reaching out to consumers on the basis of universal values in the hope of building communities that generate loyalty, goodwill, word-of-mouth advertising, and ultimately profit. It is no accident that we now live in an era of the Wal-Mart sustainability index, the Pepsi Refresh Project, the Starbucks ‘Shared Planet‘, Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles.
The challenge for us now is how far we take this. The internet has provided us with enough information to know that we all face simultaneous global crises including poverty, child-mortality, clean water, renewable energy, climate change, environmental degradation, to name but a few.
If the wave of political transformation that took place in the Arab world during the last six months showed us anything, it’s the ability of social media to connect people around what they care about is potentially transformative. It is time for us to leverage the same technology in times of peace so that we start taking better care of our planet.
There is one catch, however. If consumers do not care enough to leverage their buying power to celebrate brands that act in a socially responsible way and punish those that do not, nothing will change. And so the onus for this transformation falls on all of us. Consumers must become mindful shoppers. Brands must be seen to be increasingly authentic, transparent and accountable for their socially responsible behavior. Together, brands and consumers and the private sector at large must align with the higher values that inform government and philanthropies when they reach out to help others.
Only then can we hope to meet the challenges we face with equal if not greater force. To do otherwise is to invite disaster, not just in our own lifetimes, but for those of our children. It is time to put a Me First world behind us and start thinking and acting We First.