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It’s true… The day of the casual consumer has come and gone. The 21st century consumer is anything but casual. In other words today’s consumer is much more sophisticated than in the past. The word discriminating comes mind. Allow me to explain…

I just finished reading the book – Saving the World at Work by Tim Sanders. This is a must read for anyone who wants to succeed in business. Mr. Sanders makes the point that today, consumers care much more about who they spend their hard earned dollars with than they did in the past. They are much more discerning. They want to know that a company is not focused on just making money. They are more interested in how they treat their employees, how they treat their vendors and whether or not they are giving back to their community. It’s called Social Responsibility and it’s not optional, in the mind of the modern consumer.

Some of this has to do with demographics. As Boomers age they are looking for purpose. Their grandkids’ future is top of mind and they want to make sure they are doing their part to ensure their children’s children grow up in a safe, clean environment.

Boomers grew up in the 60’s and spent most of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s making large amounts of cash and spending, in some cases more than they earned. While the economy had its ups and downs the Boomers mantra was “everything is cyclical” and they were always optimistic a downturn meant a return to prosperity was right around the corner which was typically the case. While Boomers remain optimistic the events of the 2000’s have caused many to be more guarded and ultimately more particular when deciding what companies they do business with.

Let’s not forget Gen Why – the twenty somethings. I hear a lot of skepticism about this generation particularly from their bosses who are often part of Gen X. Actually I happen to think Gen Why has it figured out. They are the epitome of the caring consumer. Through 24 hour a day media and “word of mouse” they have learned about companies that have violated American values in pursuit of the almighty dollar. They have watched a variety of corporate leaders in congressional hearings squirming in their seats as they try to justify their indiscretions. These events leave lasting negative impressions and cause Gen Why to think twice when they make their purchases.

I am inspired by the companies, most of which are relatively new, that get it. Starbucks is one of the more established of this lot. They made a socially responsible statement early on by refusing to do business with coffee bean growers who were paying workers less than a “living wage”. Even though consumers had to pay a premium for Starbucks coffee they were willing to do it because they knew the company was dedicated to doing the right thing. There are other reasons for Starbucks success however don’t underestimate the umbrella effect that “doing the right thing” has had on their brand and their business.

Others that come to mind include Zappo’s, SAS, Tom’s Shoes and Facebook.

I learned yesterday, viewing an episode of Oprah on my DVR, that Mark Zuckerberg Founder and CEO of Facebook has made a commitment to donate $100 million in support of a project to revitalize the school system in Newark N.J.

Interestingly enough Oprah had to convince Mr. Zuckerberg to appear on the show. If he had his druthers he would have done it anonymously. This young talented CEO is leading what may be the fastest growing company in the history of the free world and he is setting the example for “doing the right thing”. This is not a publicity stunt or a way to fatten Facebook’s bottom line. It’s an awesome act of generosity and kindness that is being done for all the right reasons. Is it a smart business move? I think brilliant describes it more appropriately. It’s brilliant because I truly believe the motive has nothing to do with corporate profit and everything to do with improving education for America’s youth.

I guess social responsibility is easier for the new guys because it’s been part of their business model since day one. It’s considerably more challenging for the more established corporations. First the older stodgier organizations have to admit they have a problem then they have to figure out how they are going affect change. Those who choose to maintain the status quo may not be around in 5 years to talk about.

Is your organization committed to doing the right thing when it comes to social responsibility? If not what are you doing to encourage change? I’ve had to ask myself that same question. Remember changing the world is like eating an elephant – we have to do it one bite at a time!

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