If you've been following the newspaper headlines over the last few years, you can't have failed to notice that concern about the direction of modern society has reached fever pitch recently. The global financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent criticism of big banks has triggered a new wave of public debate â€" and more people seem to be growing increasingly uneasy about the perceived lack of ethics in big business. Although discussions of this sort are often dominated by buzzwords, there certainly seems to be a common thread running through this particular debate. The public pressure of recent years has also forced many businesses to reconsider their own approach.
Frustration over the slow pace of the political response to developments of recent years has prompted the rise of the activist consumer. There is now a widespread perception that many politicians are beholden to corporate interests, coupled with a high level of voter apathy towards the political process in general. Indeed, it appears consumer groups are playing an ever more important role in shaping public debate across a wide range of areas â€" ranging from energy prices to labour practices in developing countries â€" and this trend looks as if itâ€™s only going to become more prominent over the next few years.
There has also been more discussion about the role of corporate social responsibility in civil society. The term may sound suspiciously flowery, but there is some substance behind it â€" namely, that businesses keen to promote a positive, inclusive image to consumers are particularly sensitive to anything that may turn out to be a public relations disaster. Indeed, theory has it that piling pressure on businesses seen to violate basic values of fairness and human decency can be more effective than going directly to the politicians themselves â€" politicians who, it is often claimed, are loath to intervene in areas which may prove detrimental to corporate interests.
But there's more to corporate social responsibility than the opportunity to make an ethical buck. In a world facing the challenges posed by climate change and deepening wealth inequality, it is incumbent on businesses to be more responsive to the concerns of consumers. There are, of course, firms which place ethics at the very heart of everything they do â€" and it is these firms which have escaped the brunt of public criticism. Consumer activism isnâ€™t a mindlessly reactionary force â€" indeed, it is frequently a well-informed influence for good within civil society. The challenge for business is to ensure it moves with the times and responds to the mounting concerns of the public.