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Annie Leonard, blogging on the Huffington Post, recently asked her readers to view themselves as citizens first, not simply as consumers, and to push their governments to pass stronger regulations to protect human rights and the environment. Corporations, she argues, manufacture needs that don’t really exist, then blame consumer demand when their products are found to have been made using morally questionable practices. Obviously, consumers should choose sustainable products over those made using child labor, toxic chemicals, and other destructive actions, but the real changes won’t happen in the checkout line. The impact of a conscientious consumer, while not insignificant, is a fraction of the potential impact of a politically engaged citizen. Across-the-board changes to corporate practices will require us as citizens to demand sound regulations to curb corporate abuses of human rights and the environment.

“The problem with believing the best way to make change is by voting with our pocketbooks is that it defines us as consumers, not citizens. It implies that the most important choices are made in the supermarket aisles rather than in the halls of government and corporate towers.”

So how does this citizen/consumer question tie into our work here at EarthRights?

The cases we bring against corporations concern human rights abuses that have already occurred. In this sense, they are analogous to a consumer boycott: we learn about abuses that have already happened, and we take action to penalize the corporation for that abuse and bring justice to the affected community. Of course, we hope that the whole industry will take notice and adjust their practices, deterring all manner of abuses worldwide, but in the end we’re targetting one company at a time, over a single set of abuses, with cases that last decades and may or may not result in justice or meaningful change.

The importance of these cases can’t be understated – our unprecedented settlements have brought justice to communities devastated by energy companies in Burma and Nigeria – but we can’t sue every company for every abuse. That’s why we complement our lawsuits with tough advocacy campaigns… to access “the halls of government and corporate towers” and stop abuses before they actually occur. To change the way all corporations do business.

These two prongs are both essential: when corporations commit human rights violations, there must be pathways to justice for those who have been harmed, but there must also be regulations and norms to prevent such abuses from happening in the first place. This is why we’ve worked to strengthen the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, engaged with the UN’s Special Representative on Business & Human Rights, promoted legislation requiring financial transparency in the extractive industries, and, through our work with the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable,  worked to protect and strengthen anti-corruption laws and curb the market for conflict minerals. We also train lawyers and grassroots leaders to advance both of these prongs.

So where does this leave you, the individual? Hopefully, by now, you agree that smart consumption isn’t enough to achieve corporate accountability because this movement needs to increase the number of engaged citizens demanding that corporations respect human rights and the environment. So what can you do?

Educate yourself

First, you should familiarize yourself with the issues. Unfortunately, our movement is often hampered by the complexity of the issues – it’s not always obvious how Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act relates to the gas you buy, or how Section 1502 relates to your iPhone, or how forced labor by the Burmese military relates to a Chevron gas pipeline, so the more you can learn the more you’ll be able to help. In addition to all the content here on the EarthRights International website, you’ll find a wealth of valuable resources at the sites of the Business & Human Rights Resource Center, Global Witness, EarthWorks, Revenue Watch, Human Rights Watch, Publish What You Pay and the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, among many others.

Take action

Secondly, be ready to mobilize. Sign up to receive newsletters and action alerts from all of the organizations above (not to mention Annie Leonard’s organization, The Story of Stuff Project) or any other organization fighting for stronger regulations of corporate regulations, and take action when they call on you. Be ready to sign petitions, write letters, attend a protest, help with fundraising, or call your representatives… and be ready to mobilize your friends and family as well.

Amplify the conversation

Lastly, use social media resources, such as Facebook and Twitter, to raise awareness and start a conversation around corporate responsibility, human rights, and environmental sustainability. Even if you’re simply re-posting articles, you’re getting your voice out there. Corporations do take notice of their public image, as do elected officials, and the more we show our concern for promoting human and environmental rights, the more corporations will be pushed, both internally and externally, to follow better standards.

Which specific actions you decide to take is up to you, of course, but the most important thing is to get your voice heard on the issues that matter to you most. By demanding greater human rights and environmental regulations, and speaking to corporations as citizens rather than consumers, we can stop corporate abuses before they occur.