A healthy debate: corporate vs consumer responsibility

We were watching Can of Worms the other night on which the inspirational Michelle Bridges, with a wealth of health and fitness knowledge in application, faced the unenviable task of debating for a fat tax against two men ‘of lesser health’ who were more knowledgeable about how the commercial world works. 

Her argument was that there should be a tax on unhealthy food to make it more expensive so people don’t buy it. So the likes of McDonald’s and KFC would be taxed and pass it on to their customers. 

Challenge number 1: Will increasing costs really prevent purchase? The people buying from McDonald’s and KFC are lower socio-economic profile, with little time and money to be feeding their families, so this is a quick way to put them into greater financial difficulty and w

ork/life stress. They will still buy it because it’s part of their ingrained behaviour and they don’t really have an alternative. So the McDonalds’ and KFCs’ of the world don’t suffer but the little guy does. 

Challenge number 2: Where does a fat tax stop? We’re served with more and more research on the negative effects of excessive and ongoing consumption of white bread, pasta and potatoes – the ‘healthy’ fillers of many families. Should these be taxed? How would these poor families ever be satiated. Trying to feed a couple of people with a healthy appetite on just organic local sustainable protein, green vegetables, a bit of fruit and supplements is expensive, you’re looking at $400 per week. Some families of 4-5-6 live off this budget over a month, if they’re lucky. 

Challenge number 3: Whose responsibility is it? I’ve gathered and conducted research over the years around sustainability for environmental and health factors globally. Consumers expect the government and corporates to take responsibility. They don’t feel they can do it themselves, as individuals. Government and corporates at the least need to identify the direction, facilitate the process and set an example, communicating this simply and clearly to consumers their role in the process. Recycling packaging is a good example. Consumers want manufacturers to reduce packaging, they want retailers to stock products with less packaging, they want governments (local councils) to provide bins and collection services for recycling packaging. Then consumers can buy less packaging and recycle what remains. This is starting to work, although consumers are still curious as to what difference their little steps are making. However we are talking about impact on the community – individual impact is harder to monitor. Health is a slightly different issue because what you do, affects yourself first and the community at large second. Consumers can sometimes see if what they’re eating is causing a significant problem – ie putting on weight, poor skin etc – but many people don’t even notice the effects of poor eating until later in life or a critical life-threatening situation, and often people don’t notice they’re unhealthy because that’s the way they’ve always been. Then there’s the issue of the cost of being healthy – from food to fitness to health services. And finally who is encouraging them to be unhealthy. Consumers believe it is the responsibility of governments and corporates to help them be healthy. 

So we could say tax the McDonald’s and KFC’s of the world. But they didn’t set out to make people unhealthy. They set out to make lives easier and fun for consumers. And, in effect, these are the people who have the money and consumer influence to do something about it. They’re trying – KFC has goodification of product quality and McDonalds has a healthy range of choices. One could argue this is for commercial gains – they’re protecting their profits. Conspiracy theory would probably say they’re trying to prevent their consumers from dying off. I’d like to think that someone in marketing, HR and production actually cares, and is trying to balance the shareholder requirements with those of a nation of real people, many of whom are struggling to put healthy food on the table to feed a family.

I’ve had this discussion with a range of people over the last few months and this is my stand. People are generally good. People inherently know that being healthy is the way to being happy. People recognise that money is needed to make the world go around. People look to other people, brands and businesses they value and that are more powerful than them as individuals, to help them on their way. So we need the help of governments and corporates to influence people to change behaviour. 

I’d like to see a way of subsidising healthy living – food, fitness and health services. My individual role in this – I’m keeping myself healthy and inspiring my friends/family to do so, if I can continue to help businesses motivate their people to create and activate healthy brands for healthier results too, then I’ll be satiated (for now anyway…) 🙂

What do you think makes a healthy brand company? Do you run one? Do you work for one? Do you wish you did? Why don’t you? Why isn’t yours? 

Join the debate. And please contact me if your brand has a healthy case.