PAUL HOLMES: Technology may soon bring uniformity to stated intentions and our actual behavior

Whenever pollsters ask consumers if they would be prepared to buy a new household cleaner that's good for the environment, survey respondents always answer yes. Many even indicate a willingness to pay a few cents more for such a product. But only a fraction of those consumers then go out and do what they said they would; the remainder stick with their habitual brand.

Whenever pollsters ask consumers if they would be prepared to buy a new household cleaner that's good for the environment, survey respondents always answer yes. Many even indicate a willingness to pay a few cents more for such a product. But only a fraction of those consumers then go out and do what they said they would; the remainder stick with their habitual brand.

I've always found those surveys amusing. People obviously have a tendency to tell pollsters what they want to hear. How many of us would tell the truth: "You know, I've got nothing against the environment, but I'm not going to the trouble of researching every little purchase I make just to save a few trees." There are numerous obstacles between stated intentions and actual behavior, one of which is the difficulty of knowing which products - and companies - really are ethical. Even if you know that Company X is more socially responsible than Company Y, do you really know which of them makes Brand Z? But now there's a new gizmo on the market that might help those who want their conscience to guide their consuming habits. James Patten of MIT's Media Lab has come up with a gadget that scans a product's bar code and sounds a click if the manufacturer has been subject to ethical complaints. Patten calls it the Corporate Fallout Detector. Right now, it sounds like a pretty blunt instrument. After all, definitions of ethical behavior differ dramatically. Some people would never buy from a company that gives money to Planned Parenthood, while others would boycott one whose founder supports anti-choice causes. Some consider BP to be in the forefront of environmental responsibility because it acknowledges global warming and has committed to developing alternative sources of fuel. Others say no oil company can ever be a friend to the environment, and BP's CSR claims are exaggerated. (In any case, Patten says he has no plans to market the device.) But now that the technology exists, it's a cinch others will refine it and sell it. It's possible that in a few years you'll be able to buy such devices that screen for a variety of issues, perhaps even a version that's pre-programmable with social responsibility scores from various watchdog groups, so you can choose the one that shares your values. I'm not suggesting that hordes of shoppers will wield these items as they trudge through the supermarket aisles, but such devices could become status symbols for those who like to see themselves as good, progressive, and responsible citizens. And how many of these would a VP of marketing have to see before he decided to change his company's behavior?
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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