Treating consumers as citizens

KNOWLEDGE @ KRISTIANIA: Responsible Business.

Since the onset of Covid 19, the consultancy C Space has been hosting an online community of more than 500 people to explore the way that the pandemic is impacting on their lives and their sense of identity.

The result is fluid in the sense that as social, racial and political issues have emerged during the year, so the focus of the community has shifted. However, one notable finding is the way that people have realized their interdependence.

For example, 88% of community members agreed with the statement ‘The Covid-19 pandemic has made me realize how grateful I am for others in my life’ and 83% agreed with ‘Covid-19  has taught me how much we all rely on one another.’

Growing sense of mutuality

This sense of mutuality can also be observed in the innumerable acts of kindness towards others, the commitment of healthcare professionals and service workers, the ongoing concern for the well-being of friends and family and the general willingness to abide by the constraining rules of everyday lockdown life .

There are of course the counter-moves against mutuality – most evident in the polarization in American society – but in most contexts social trust and cohesion have been powerfully impressive.

Consumers as Citizens

An interesting aspect of this increased emphasis on a ‘we’ culture is the way people have become more demanding of business to act as responsible contributors to society.

There is a growing expectation that companies should no longer treat consumers simply as objects – as revenue generating units –  but rather see tham as partners in creating economic and social value; to see them as consumers and citizens.

Influencing society through actions

This perspective benefits individuals by giving them the opportunity to enhance their sense of identity and to influence society through their actions.  

For example, when UK department store, Selfridges, made a specific commitment to sustainability by launching Project Earth in 2020, it created a way in which consumers could express their identity and commitment to a cause through their choices.

Similarly, when Nike launched a campaign featuring National Football League (NFL) player Colin Kaepernick and the statement ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,’ in support of  Kaepernick’s racial inequality protests at NFL games, it made it possible for people to demonstrate their beliefs by supporting Nike.

Closer to people

For companies, treating consumers as citizens, is a way of becoming closer to people through shared values and of demonstrating a sense of societal engagement with the issues that matter.

This is a powerful way for companies to communicate their relevance and to contribute to solving sociopolitcal problems, by taking on issues that were once seen as the remit of others.

However, even if some corporations are making valuable contributions, it seems there is still scepticism. A 2018 survey in the US found that only 21.4% of Chief Marketing Officers believed their brand should take a stance. For those who did the most cited reason was ‘It shows their company cares about more than making profits,’ while the main reason for not was the fear of a negative effect on customer retention.

The power to influence

The fact that business has the resources and influence to impact the world, does not mean that consumer-citizens should be passive.

Companies such as Walmart, Selfridges, Danone and Nike adopt sociopolitical positions on climate, equality and sustainability, because of the pressure from customers – and importantly that then influences the behaviour of their suppliers and partners, who are required to adhere to specified standards.

Covid has influenced many aspects of life in a negative way, but it has also demonstrated the connectedness we have to each other and our shared responsibility to shape a future by being conscientious consumer-citizens.


  • Peretti, J. and Micheletti, M. (2017), “Nike sweatshop email: Political consumerism, internet, and culture jamming”, in Wirt, F.M. (Ed.), Politics, products, and markets: Exploring political consumerism past and present, Routledge: New York.
  • Deloitte (2018), “The CMO survey: Fall 2018 report”.

This popular article is wrtitten for Kunnskap Kristiania and first published 26th November 2020. Kunnskap Kristiania is a science Communication Magazine published by Kristiania University College.

Text: Professor Nicholas Ind, Department of Economics and Innovation, Kristiania University College and Holger Schmidt.