When the Competition Commission announced that it was charging a bunch of local and international banks for exchange rate rigging, the public outcry reached a boiling point almost immediately.
While much fury and outrage was emitted on Twitter, 140 characters at a time, I couldn’t help noticing that there were a number of South African banks not implicated. I wondered if any of these angry South Africans would opt to switch banks in the face of these damning allegations.
I waited to see if there would be any kind of consumer activism against the banks stemming from the commission’s prosecution.
I’m still waiting.
This is why the other day I read with keen interest about US fintech start-up Aspiration, which was co-founded by Andrei Cherny, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton.
Aspiration has a new service included with its mobile banking app, which will track a customer’s spending, producing a monthly report on the social impact of their consumer choices.
Aspiration measures companies’ performance according to how they treat the planet, their employees and the communities they operate in.
This is done by tracking 75 000 data points on nearly 5 000 companies, taking into account issues like diversity, employee pay, energy efficiency and carbon footprint.
Cherny has said that the idea is to empower consumers to understand how best to use the power of their purse. “Imagine weaponising that consumer sentiment and putting it in your pocket,” he has been reported as saying, and was quoted repeating the mantra “money talks”.
But “money talks” could just as easily be used by the executives of the companies who ride roughshod over communities to justify their impact. The issue is not whether the money is talking, but rather what it is saying.
And that’s what makes Aspiration’s social-ethical reporting so damn interesting. If this were to become adopted as a standard, perhaps the companies dumping toxic waste into local streams and rivers would think twice.
There’s nothing like a tirade of fury and outrage directed at your company via social media, and then naturally following in the mainstream media, to poke a stick in your wheel of fortune.
A few days after reading about Aspiration, I read about a May Day protest in the US city of Portland that was put down after protesters starting throwing cans of Pepsi at police officers.
In case you missed it, the act was one of dissent and mockery after Pepsi aired an advertisement that featured Kendall Jenner defusing a tense moment at a demonstration by handing a Pepsi to a police officer.
The ad came under heavy fire on social media, with Pepsi accused of co-opting the imagery of the #BlackLivesMatter protest movements to sell drinks.
But will the public sentiment against Pepsi hurt the company where it matters most in 2017 – with a reduction in sales?
And shouldn’t its biggest rival, Coca-Cola, also be in the spotlight, facing greater scrutiny on social and ethical terms?
Let’s start with all the plastic bottles floating in the ocean. Predictions suggest that by 2050 the plastic in the seas may weigh more than all the fish – a scary thought.
Coke’s bottling plants are reported to use more than 300bn litres of water a year. Its total water footprint, needed to grow all the sugar cane and other ingredients, is thought to be 100 times that. That’s just the impact on the earth; we haven’t even begun to talk about the health implications for consumers, which place a burden on the state and has led in many instances to a sugar tax, like SA plans to introduce.
I started to wonder if Corporate SA is even ready for this kind of ethical and social scrutiny.
Having covered the competition authorities for almost 12 years now, I believe SA’s economy seems to have been structured during apartheid, with maintaining oligopolies and collusion in mind, not real competition.
Pity then the poor South African consumers who are conscious of their ethical and social footprint but have few alternative options.
Their cars are made using platinum from mines where workers were murdered over pay increases. Their electricity supply comes from Eskom, a company where corruption scandals are a dime a dozen and clean renewable energy seems barely an afterthought.
When they buy a loaf of bread, they are choosing between former members of a cartel. Paying the public broadcaster for their TV licences exposes them to all kinds of social ills, the SABC’s abuses of its employees being just one of them.
It’s clear that Corporate SA is not ready for this kind of scrutiny, which means we as citizens and consumers need it all the more.
This article originally appeared in the 25 May edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.