Supporters of Greenpeace’s campaign against Nestlé cheered this week when the corporate food giant presented a formal plan created in collaboration with The Forest Trust to stop using palm oil from rainforest-destroying suppliers. According to Greenpeace, this is the result of their anti-Nestlé campaign, which included a satiric Kit Kat commercial that garnered over 1.5 million views, inspired a couple hundred thousand emails to the company and an assault on Nestlé’s Facebook page. Taking steps towards saving the habitat of orangutans in Indonesia is great, but that’s not the really remarkable thing. This is slacktivism moving from online to offline.
Slacktivism is a somewhat touchy subject, as it refers to when people want to do good or advocate for a cause, but basically aren’t willing to get off the couch to do it. Some people argue that this is better than nothing, others argue that it essentially is nothing. Largely as a result of new media, it is much easier now to join a campaign or cause than it used to be. Not so long ago, if I wanted to battle Nestle, I would have had to first hear about the issue, most likely through print media or word-of-mouth. Then, I would have to get up, write a letter to the company, get the company’s address, put a stamp on it, walk it to the mailbox and hope that it got to the right person. Now I can send that same letter with a mouse click, and if I’m worried that no one will read it, I can openly attack the company and publicize the cause, perhaps inspiring others to join. I don’t have to go to a rally, which may or may not be in my area, and if I want to donate money, I can do that on my phone. But is that necessarily a good thing?
In some ways, no. The hope is that when you join a cause, you do so because you are willing to invest in it, not because you read a friend’s status update and figure, why not? Really making a change requires more than sending an email; in the case of Nestlé, it would also mean a personal boycott of their products, which would require at least a little research into their other products, and it may mean you can’t eat things you really enjoy, like Kit Kats. Here, you’re involved, you’re invested and you’re essentially using your shopping habits to vote against the company in a way that impacts their bottom line.
However, this does take a little more effort, and your personal ban on Kit Kats might not garner much media attention. A mass of people essentially posting open letters slamming a company and clearly incurring its wrath does make the news, and can quickly grow impossible to ignore. At the same time, maybe this makes it too easy to join a cause. You spread yourself thin when you’re signed up for dozens of mailing lists and newsletters soliciting you for money, constantly donating your online status or profile picture, voting for what charity should receive funding, signing digital petitions, forwarding action emails and emailing politicians–especially if you’re doing this for a number of causes which caught your eye. Eventually, you probably drop off a few of those mailing lists. You’ve made your voice heard, an action which has value in itself, but outside of that, what have you done? Slacktivism can create the illusion that you’re doing good, when really, you’re not doing much at all.
We all have to pick and choose, and while there an infinite number of charities and organizations and campaigns which are worthwhile, most of us don’t have the time to really participate in more than a couple at a time. The success of Greenpeace’s campaign against Nestlé is the exception, not the rule. Me being a skeptic, I’m sure that powerful lobbyists, public relations representatives and executives working behind closed doors are the ones who really made change. New media has certainly been a boon for activists all over the world, raising awareness and funds on an awe-inspiring level, but don’t be fooled that digital petitions and Facebook are enough to change the world. That is done with hard work and time donated by people who are committed, inspired and focused.
Speaking of ways to make a difference, volunteer with The LAMP this summer!