David Prosser: Don't march - hit the bottom line

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The Independent Online

Are you one of millions of people who supported the Make Poverty History campaign this summer? If so, how will you react if, as now looks very likely, next month's world trade talks in Hong Kong fail to produce reforms that benefit developing economies, one of the key aims of the campaign?

It won't be the first time that the world's political and business leaders have let us down. Just this week, members of the European Parliament agreed to water down proposals to clean up the chemicals industry, following pressure from businesses worried about costs.

But don't get mad - get even. This week's Save & Spend is all about direct action. I'm not suggesting smashing up Strasbourg town centre - there is a far more effective way to achieve your political aims.

Remember, companies do not have to exploit the current trade laws to their advantage - if it is in their interests not to do so. They can modify their behaviour in any way necessary, if doing so will be of benefit to the bottom line. Business leaders running global corporations have a long track record of ignoring protests about their behaviour. But when their customers start going elsewhere they sit up and take notice.

Earlier this year, Which?, the consumer group, said people were already aware that their spending decisions can be very powerful. Two-thirds of consumers believe that they can influence companies' environmental and ethical behaviour, its surveys show, and they are increasingly willing to take action.

There have already been some major success stories. In 1997, for example, Pepsi severed its links with Burma, after customers began boycotting Pepsi's products in fury at the company's activities in a country with one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. More recently, the campaigns against genetically modified food have persuaded supermarkets not to stock such produce.

Charities such as WWF and Greenpeace are working to harness this sort of power. Both organisations try to persuade consumers to support companies that behave well. Greenpeace's Alien Invasion campaign, for example, urged consumers to boycott the oil company Esso and to sign up, instead, to a green fuel deal from Npower.

The wonderful thing about ethical consumerism is that you can choose how far you want to take it. Switching to a greener energy supplier (see the article on the opposite page) is a relatively easy step.

Adding an ethical dimension to every spending decision you make (pages 4-5) may be more of a challenge, although there are lots of groups that can help.

There's certainly no reason why becoming more socially responsible has to mean donning the hair shirt. This week, the range of goodies and gadgets in Save & Spend's Insider column (pages 8-9) is as exciting as ever, yet every single one is ethically sourced or environmentally friendly.

Finally, don't forget your finances (pages 10-11). The ethical financial services industry now makes it easy for you to ensure that your money is not used to support activities that contradict your values.

And when a company's shareholders join its customers in demanding socially responsible improvements, directors are even more likely to listen.

n n n A rise in the State pension age to 67 is likely to be one of the key recommendations of Adair Turner's Pension Commission report, which is due out at the end of the month.

It's a perfectly sensible idea - the current retirement age was set at a time when people reaching 65 could, on average, only expect to live only a few more years, compared with 15 or so today.

However, as I have argued in this column before, there is no point in raising the retirement age unless we are prepared to tackle unemployment among the over-50s.

This age group is more likely to be out of work than any other - our lack of age discrimination laws do not help - yet there is precious little help available.

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