Workers, Customers: You Really Can Make Big Businesses Listen

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Members of the public signing a petition against possible closure of their local Post Office, High Street, New Malden, Surrey UK
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When you read something discouraging about a company you patronize or invest in, it's easy to think there isn't much you can do about it. But of course that's not true. As a customer, you can simply stop giving the company your business. If you're a shareholder, you can vote for or against various proposals for the company.

And if those options don't feel like enough, there's another way to voice your displeasure -- a tactic that is growing in popularity and is truly bring about changes: You can start or sign a petition.

If your first reaction to that is, "Nonsense, petitions never accomplish anything," your skepticism is understandable. But it's a little out of date. Social media has changed the petition game as it has changed so many other things.

Banding Together for Change

By now, you've probably seen petitions pop up on your Facebook (FB) page. You might have even signed some. But we don't often hear what happens next. In many cases, they work. For example, 162,150 people signed a petition protesting the name of a Jacksonville, Fla., high school, which had been named in the 1950s after a slave trader and Ku Klux Klan member, and the school board has agreed to change its name at the start of the new school year.

Changes can happen at big companies, too. More than 307,000 petitioners were successful in getting Tyson Foods (TSN), the second-largest food-production company in the Fortune 500, to "stop torturing pigs." The company announced new animal-welfare guidelines for its pork suppliers, requiring more room for pigs to move around and more humane methods of killing the animals.

Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) is another example. It had long been criticized for policies such as not offering clothing in larger sizes and making someone's looks a major hiring criteria in order to distance itself from anyone other than "cool, good-looking people." The company has finally agreed to start offering plus-size clothing, likely persuaded in part by more than 80,000 people signing a petition urging Abercrombie to change its ways.

SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) has come under fire lately for its treatment of captive killer whales, publicized in the disturbing documentary "Blackfish," which is now streaming on Netflix (NFLX). Disillusionment with SeaWorld seems to be growing, with it experiencing some traffic shrinkage. At Change.org, a petition asking singer Willie Nelson to cancel an appearance there worked, with fewer than 10,000 signers. Other similar efforts have led many other performers to drop Seaworld gigs.

Sprint (S), petitioned by more than 175,000 people, agreed to improve its policies to keep domestic-violence victims safer. Verizon (VZ) did as well. Part of the problem were steep fees faced by those who were trying to separate themselves from joint accounts with abusers.

Even Facebook, which is used to spread many petitions, was itself the subject of a successful petition, with the company agreeing not to censor images of women who have had mastectomies. More than 21,000 supporters signed that petition.

Take Action

Instead of merely reading about past victories, you can take part in future ones by signing existing petitions or creating your own. Active petitions at Change.org include:
  • Asking Staples (SPLS) to not cut part-time workers' hours in order to dodge paying for its employees' health insurance. (It recently had more than 200,000 signers.)
  • Asking Dunkin' Brands' (DNKN) Dunkin' Donuts to replace its Styrofoam cups with a greener alternative. (The petition recently sported more than 127,000 signers.)
  • Asking Coca-Cola (KO) to stop using brominated vegetable oil in some of its drinks, due to safety concerns about it. (It's banned in Europe and Japan.) (The petition has more than 57,000 supporters.)
You can get involved by going to social-change sites such as Change.org and browsing through existing petitions in categories that interest you (such as economic justice, sustainable food, or gay rights), or by searching for particular issues or companies. Change.org's main page has a big button inviting you to start your own petition, too. Other sites with many petitions include CredoAction.com, Care2.com, and MoveOn.org. Even the White House has a petition section on its website.

You're not powerless when you see or hear of actions and policies that you don't like. Petition for change.

Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, owns shares of Coca-Cola, Netflix, and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool recommends Coca-Cola, Facebook, and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Coca-Cola, Facebook, Netflix, and Staples. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.

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