Using Twitter to flex some consumer muscle

I started the ‘#AsktheQ’ campaign because on an East Coast train journey to Edinburgh on 10th May, I realised that if I didn’t ask a staff member if their plastic bottles got recycled, I wouldn’t know the answer. Simple as that. Every day since then I have been putting basic questions to a range of companies, as well as organisations and public bodies, about their regard for the environment. 

We need structures in place to support us to spend responsibly but social media offers consumers the ultimate tool for holding companies to account because Twitter has become an important platform for consumer engagement. This campaign has changed me and I think it can help change the corporate landscape too.

Pushing for greater transparency

We probably generate the most amount of waste in our own homes, in the form of waste food, packaging, energy, water and effluent. It’s certainly where we see the most obvious signs of what we leave in our wake, because we feel the weight and bulk of the rubbish we put out for collection, and feel the pinch when the electricity and water bills are paid. But what about our contributions to the more hidden waste generated by the offices we work in, the retailers we buy from, the transport companies we travel with, the hotels we holiday in, and the restaurants and food outlets we eat in?

The only way to know what efforts companies are making to reduce their waste is to ask them. I started the #AsktheQ campaign for this purpose, to communicate how strongly I felt about my waste footprint to the businesses I supported, and because more often than not, this information wasn’t available on their websites or was out of date. I discovered you often have to ask if you want to know.

Complicity and agency

There do need to be more stringent regulations that ensure manufacturers take greater responsibility for the waste they generate – something as robust as the EU’s recently updated Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive for the electronics industry. And local councils need to contract companies that will recycle, reuse or compost all waste. This is something that the more active among us can push for directly through the various channels available to us – be it through our elected representatives or via a lobby group. But we can all show a bit of consumer muscle and tell companies what we expect from them by simply asking what they’re doing about their waste – the instant we buy from a company however, it becomes our waste.

Asking – in person or by e-mail – is the important part. But sharing your findings on Twitter offers activists and clicktivists the opportunity to highlight a company’s shortcomings, as well as promote any commendable efforts, with millions of people – there are 10million Twitter users in the UK alone. I have had several ‘open’ responses from companies on Twitter, revealing how they track and respond to what is being said about them, including big chains like Pret a Manger, Specsavers, Tesco and Sainsbury’s. I think that #AsktheQ encourages companies to be more transparent about their activities – for what is being done, what isn’t, and what plans companies have to do more. Not everything can be achieved overnight but by encouraging firms to tell us what their sustainability targets are and then tweeting about them, we can better hold them to account.

Intrinsic rewards from practising the three Rs

Consuming responsibly goes beyond following the rules on recycling – the other two Rs, Reduce and Reuse, come before Recycle for a reason; they are more important but harder to achieve. However, the good news is that the benefits of such behaviours are more than just the oft-cited financial ones; there’s an opportunity to have your intrinsic values button pressed too. And this feels good. Self-transcending actions that aren’t about saving money or keeping up with the Jones’ reinforce the benevolence, compassion and altruism in all of us. And this leaves you with the buzz of knowing you’ve done something for the benefit of something or someone other than yourself. 

And it gets better – a recent study has shown that one environmentally-responsible behaviour impacts on a person’s tendency to engage in other such behaviours, so it’s a gentle spiral upwards. For me, certainly, there has been a knock-on effect. By simply asking a company about their regard for the environment on a daily basis since May, I have become hyper-aware about the provenance of the things I buy, more interested in buying things that last and more inclined to share what I’ve got with others. I feel more like I own my choices now and in a miniscule way am doing my bit to shape the future. 

Want to get involved?

Here’s how:

1. Next time you buy a greetings card and some wrapping paper, ask the retailer how much recycled content the product contains, or whether it’s from renewable sources.

2. Ask your local supermarket if they recycle any of the packaging from their produce that the local council won’t take. 

3. Ask a company if it has a waste minimization or reduction strategy and ask what their targets are.

4. If the information you’re requesting isn’t on the company’s website or in their latest CSR or Sustainability Report, ask them to publish it. 

If you’re on Twitter tweet what you’re told, even if it’s an ‘I don’t know’, using the hashtag #AsktheQ. Where the company in question has a Twitter user account, use the correct @name so they are alerted to you mentioning them.

This was first published on Waste Watch’s website, as part of their ‘Waste less, Live more’ campaign 17th – 23rd September 2012