This paper argues that corporations and businesses who sell goods and services are obligated to produce and provide such wares in a manner primarily beneficial to consumers through the prism of social responsibility. While corporate responsibility in society has been discussed for decades it may be that little attention has been paid to the responsibility to consumers. But if said responsibility is concerned with the rights of corporation and business stakeholders would this not include consumers as well? As economist N. Craig Smith (2003) rightfully points out, “…while there is substantial agreement that [social responsibility] is concerned with the societal obligations of business, there is much less certainty about what these obligations might be or their scope.” (p. 3)
Shrouded within their miasma of uncertainty is what that responsibility means to consumers. But when it comes to profits certain corporations seem to cherry pick who will benefit from their products at lower prices while placing the burden of rectifying profit loss on the backs of others. An example would be GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the pharmaceutical giant who undercut prices for drugs treating HIV/AIDS in underdeveloped countries such as those in Africa, while raising prices in developed nations (Smith, 2003). To sympathize with the costs GSK must incur in terms of research and development (R & D) should never obscure the glaring fact that they successfully offset those costs by gouging people solely because they lived in countries having a better standard of living.
It should also be noted that prior to the “generosity” of GSK the multinational joined a consortium of other pharmaceutical companies in a lawsuit to block the South African government from distributing generic drugs in order to stem the rising tide of HIV/AIDS cases in the country (Smith, 2003) The argument posed by the pharmaceutical companies was stated to be about patents which protected their investments primarily in R & D, but their efforts would turn into a public relations nightmare which actually appears to have forced GSK into lowering their prices in that particular region of the world. All is not what it seems with corporate social responsibility, but then the consumer here in the United States bears the brunt of such concern.
Yet, it would seem extremely difficult to separate abstractions pertaining to what is meant by “consumer” to what may viewed as the “public.” It would appear that both are the same, and yet from a corporate prism they apparently are not. In reality, the consumer in terms of a rather short-sighted view is the individual who purchases goods and services at the lowest price possible, while the public is forced to underwrite significant tangible losses a corporation has no intention of addressing. For example, the timber industry here in this country has been provided by the government with generous licensing for purposes of clear-cut deforestation especially in areas located throughout western states. Licensing is a relatively inexpensive process for the timber industry, which eventually results in a cost saving to consumers once lumber reaches the market (Korten, 2001).
In effect, this is part and parcel of capitalism known as market theory where costs incurred to bring products to market are first assumed by the manufacturer or producer and then passed on to the consumer. But, something was lost along the way to bringing lumber to the market because the lumber industry had no intention to assume the costs related to re-forestation, the loss of natural habitat and recreational areas, to diminished lumber production in the future and to the destruction of water sheds, those costs were passed on to the American public; or in the long-run, consumers (Korten, 2001).
Consumers bear the burden of corporate activities regardless of terminology that attempts to separate the buying public from the public at-large. Such practice is a very manipulative mechanism that is employed in order to convince the world that corporations actually care. Corporations care only about profitability, and the cost-benefit of separating the terms “consumer” from the “public” has already had serious ramifications.