It might look like I’m just standing around drinking a smoothie in the Atlanta airport, but in my mind, I’m changing the world. I feel that way because the little green logo on my renewable “Ecotainer” smoothie cup reads, “Making a difference one cup at a time.”
This “green planet” cup exists because social justice has been ferociously pushed into the limelight. People post to protest brands they hate, commenting, “This product is bad for the environment.” Or, they post to promote brands they love, commenting, “That service promotes gender equality.” With the countless number of posts, likes, shares, etc., it might seem as if this were the greatest time of social activism since the ‘70s. However, convenience is still a driving factor in today’s consumer decision-making. The irony of these contrasting trends is that social justice is rarely, if ever, convenient.
“Slacktivism” is a relatively new form of social activism in which people protest or support a cause by posting, sharing, “liking” content, or by purchasing products that purport to serve society. These forms of activism can create a façade of empowerment within individuals who participate. Slacktivists feel they are contributing to a greater good, but are they? A post, “like,” “tweet,” or “favorite” can create a sense of triumph and justice, but where is the substance of change?
February 2018 marks the sixth anniversary of the End It Movement to “Shine a Light on Slavery.” In this movement, young people mark a red “X” on their hands, and then post selfies of their hands online. The End It Movement is an effort to spread awareness of the horrific and widespread occurrences of human trafficking, which includes forced labor and sex trafficking (FBI.gov).
Drawing a red “X” on the back of one’s hand can feel like a great accomplishment — and the “X” on your hand and your social posts about it serve as conversation starters about an honorable organization that combats human trafficking. However, since these actions can all be fully carried out on the living room sofa, this begs the question: Are they actions at all? One must ask, “If it can be done without leaving the couch, how much difference can be made in the world?”
In reality, if people truly want to end human trafficking, they might need to sacrifice everyday conveniences so that brands would take notice. Human trafficking (forced labor, domestic servitude) can be traced to almost every product around us. Do you know who picked the produce you ate this morning for breakfast? Are you aware of who made your clothing? When is the last time you questioned where your smartphone or shoes were manufactured?
Perhaps slave labor workers harvested the bananas in my smoothie. Or, perhaps they made my coffee’s “Ecotainer,” the very item that makes me feel so good about my slacktivism. As we have all rushed to save the planet, let’s not forget to save the world’s inhabitants, too. We might not be able to save the world, but if brands invested in the answer to these questions, at least we could actually make a difference “one cup at a time.”
We can’t get serious about solving a problem without getting uncomfortable. If someone wants to sincerely impact the world, the chances they would do so successfully using social media are slim — unless a brand gets involved to leverage its economic power to monetize a movement. Real change takes real research, real time and real investment. That’s where modern marketing comes in.
Going further than a red “X” on people’s hands, imagine a brand that dares to look into the labor practices of their own foreign manufacturing plants. If a brand took the time to clean up and police the slave labor camps — called factories in developing countries — it might truly make a difference. Then, all of the online posting and influencer engagement of these movements would organically happen on behalf of that brand. People would pay more for their product. In fact, that brand could add a little red “X” to the label of its product to appeal to the slacktivists who so badly want to make a difference in the world. Then, they actually would!