Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Are you a citizen or a consumer?

Over the past ten years the growth of charities and business have both remained static. The growth of social enterprise - the businesses with a foot in both camps - has shot through the roof. I reckon this is a telling sign of the times.

In fact, I can't help but wonder if we're all just a bit over it. Over the whole capitalist, American Dream thing that is. Perhaps we're after a life with a bit more substance? Is such a thing possible? Could it be that we're after a greater reward than simply financial remuneration? I think there is a growing trend in this direction.

For me, it raises a question that I seem to be encountering a lot these days: can we be citizens AND consumers?

As someone a few days ago quite eloquently pointed out, we live in a world where we have stronger connections with brands than we have with our neighbours. How much of your behaviour is that of a consumer vs. citizen? It's a very intersting aspect of modern life. Even more so when we consider the great sway towards greater citizenship within society today.

The combination of our shift in desire and the shift in business patterns is a fascinating cocktail.

Because if there is a social back-to-basics desire in society for us to feel less like a consumers, more like a citizens. And there's a general trend towards people doing work they believe in and find personally fulfilling and then trying to make money out of it. Then surely there is an interesting segue between these new businesses and the citizens they communicate and engage with. Yes?

This thinking really starts to get juicy when we think about what this could mean for government - especially in times of financial (ahem) uneasiness. Where government fails us or simply has its hands tied, perhaps ethical business can step in?

If this all sounds like a hippy pipe-dream then think again.

I listened to the radio for about an hour yesterday and heard two stories which fit this mould.

First there was a debate discussing the possibility of licensed premises in areas with a high rate of alcohol-related crimes being made to contribute to the policing of these areas. If a business is going to make money from selling alcohol to people in an area known for alcohol-related crimes, perhaps these businesses should use part of their profit to counteract these crimes? This could be a great example of businesses selling to consumers and caring for citizens.

Second there was discussion around the climate change bill, where one member of parliament suggested that instead of penalising people for not being green, he would rather work with business to reward people for being green. Again, the example here would be rewarding consumers for being good citizens.

Either way, business is changing and people are changing too. And it looks like the businesses of the future will be built around citizenship will be tantamount to creating business success.

Imagine, using the first example, a pub opening in your neighbourhood that chose to use a percentage of its profits to ensure its patrons were safe as they arrived and left their premises. I bet the citizen in you wants to buy a pint there next time you're out.

I'd love to hear your thoughts - especially if you disagree.

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