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Consumer action

Page - November 30, 2006
There are plenty of ways you can effectively change a company's practices. As a consumer and a voter, your actions are carefully monitored by companies that want your business. We can change corporations by identifying those which are truly committed to sustainable development and exposing those which are not.

After massive consumer pressure, McDonald's will no longer sell chicken fed on soya grown in deforested areas of the Amazon rainforest.

Spread the word on the internet

Corporations are vulnerable to negative publicity. Given the global reach of the internet, corporate crimes in Papua New Guinea, West Africa or in the middle of the Southern Ocean can be relayed to the whole world almost instantaneously. Setting up an ethical watchdog website is a way to inform investors and other stakeholders of the behaviour of corporations.

Become a shareholder

If you want to engage a company and its board of directors, become a shareholder. Attend annual general meetings and ask appropriate questions so that other shareholders become informed of the company's practices. A copy of the shareholders' register is available (usually at a fee) and you may even be able to encourage other shareholders to join your cause.

All listed companies must produce and publish an annual report. You can obtain a copy by calling them or visiting their website. An annual report will list a company's activities and profits over the last year. There is now a trend for companies to also produce environmental annual reports. This shows the growing pressure on companies to be green. But the appearance of green strategies doesn't necessarily mean a business is embracing environmental practices. Plenty of companies "greenwash" and it's important to investigate the substance behind their public facade.

Direct lobbying

You can organise to meet with corporate executives to get your message across. Remember when talking to the business sector that their core motivation is to preserve their company's reputation.

Executives will focus on the organisational costs and benefits of your demands. Try to develop a relationship with someone within the organisation and be very clear about your message. Look for ways to maintain a dialogue with the organisation without compromising your position.

Impact on the corporate image

You could take your protest to the streets, either outside the company's office or to the site of the company's wrongdoing. You must check what your legal position is when making a public statement about particular individuals or a company. Some companies have little hesitation using the legal system to silence people they consider a nuisance.

Contact companies

You can contact companies by letter, email or phone. Find their contact details on their website or in the phone book. Always address your concerns to the company head, the chief executive officer (CEO). The easiest way to find a company CEO's contact details, including their email address, is to ring the company and ask.

In all your communications with companies, be firm but respectful. You will be taken more seriously if you are polite and have a good understanding of your subject.

Write a letter

Follow these tips for effective letter writing to company CEOs.

  • Put the date and the company's address at the top left hand side of the page
  • Do your homework. You don't want to be caught out with the wrong information. The company's own website, including annual reports, can be a great source of revealing information.
  • Keep it short and simple (400 words maximum)
  • Use short sentences and bullet points
  • Write about only one issue per letter
  • Define the problem, offer solutions and call for them to take action
  • Ask questions that require specific answers
  • Check your spelling and grammar before posting the letter
  • Always sign the letter and print your name and address below your signature
  • Keep all your letters and responses for reference
  • If you do not receive a response, follow up with a phone call

If their response does not address the issue or answer your question, write again and ask for clarification of their response. Don't let them try to ignore the problem.

Send an email

Email is a quick and easy way to get your point across. However, it is also easily deleted. A personal letter, sent by snail mail, is always more effective. To write an effective email, follow the tips above for letter writing as well as the following tips:

  • Avoid email symbols, shorthand or email-speak
  • Write in complete sentences
  • The recipient probably gets hundreds of emails every day. Think carefully about the email subject line and use it to get their attention.
  • Always provide your postal address in the body of your email. This gives the company the option of mailing you a response.

Make a phone call

A phone call shows that you mean business and that you are not intimidated by the company you are calling. Ask to be put through to a decision maker, such as the CEO, rather than a complaints department. Read these tips before you call:

  • Prepare what you are going to say beforehand. You may want to have some notes handy to refer to during the conversation.
  • Keep to one issue per call
  • Do your homework. You don't want to be caught out with the wrong information.
  • Define the problem, offer solutions and call for action.
  • Ask questions that require specific answers.
  • Be polite and remember that the person you are talking to may not be able to give you an answer immediately. If so, ask when you may call them back for further information.

If the person can't answer your questions, ask to speak to someone who can.

During the phone call, takes notes about the details and their responses to your questions, including the name and position of the person you speak to.

Follow up the phone call with a letter, outlining the conversation and asking for clarification if necessary.