From food and clothing to consumer electronics and vehicles, purchasing some things some times is an inevitable part of our lives. While purchases may be well integrated in our day-to-day, mindless consumption doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) be.
But what are the implications of buying something?
Its impact doesn’t stop at you spending money and using the product. There’s a whole process that takes a product from the raw material stage to being displayed on shelves, and not to mention what happens to it after it comes to the end of its useful life (at least in its current form).
Along with price and quality, the social and environmental impact of products from production to disposal is influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions. In other words, conscious consumerism is on the rise.
📼 Watch the Series: Conscious Consumerism
We produced a 2-part series on Conscious Consumerism; what it is, why it matters, and how you can be a conscious consumer yourself.
Get started with Part 1 below:
The Rise of Conscious Consumerism
An Overview of the Conscious Consumer Movement
Imagine your trips to the grocery store. When you peruse the aisles of seemingly endless food, drink, and home products do you consider the impact of every item you add to your cart? Many of us focus first on cost, often by necessity. But, we may also consider, where does this chicken breast come from? How was this chicken raised? What kind of impact does poultry farming have on climate change?
Yes, some find themselves wondering about a product’s social impact and the best sales—these questions aren’t mutually exclusive!
What kinds of questions are you asking yourself when you go shopping?
A Quick Conscious Consumption Definition
By now you probably have a pretty good idea of what conscious consumerism is, but to eliminate any doubt, here’s a quick definition: Conscious consumerism is when buying practices are driven by a commitment to making purchasing decisions that have positive social, economic, and environmental impact.
In other words, it’s a movement whereby consumers vote with their dollar by buying ethical products, avoiding unethical companies, and sometimes not purchasing at all. So, a socially or environmentally conscious consumer will think whether consumption is necessary, then once they decide to buy, they look at who is providing the product and how the product impacts each environment touched in its creation and delivery.
Eliminating impulse buys and opting for companies and products that create positive impact, consumers communicate a preference for better-for-the-world business and products.
Conscious consumerism (otherwise known as ethical consumerism or green consumerism) is a trend that grows more and more popular by the day.
But where did it get its start?
A Brief History of Conscious Consumerism
The concept of a “conscious consumer” dates back to the 1970s. But the first inklings of the modern concept of “dollar voting” can be traced back even further to 1954, when economist James Buchanan stated that individual participation in the economy is a form of pure democracy, in his article Individual Choice in Voting and the Market.
Not surprisingly, formal consumer movements that advocated for consumer rights were developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in industrialized countries such as the U.S. and UK. These movements came into existence to combat unfair labor practices, ensure product safety, encourage healthy competition in the market, and implement financial regulation (for example, cheaper access to credit and better loan education for borrowers).
Advocating for consumer rights remains an important aspect of participating in the marketplace today, but consumers have transformed what it means to be a consumer by placing a large focus on making responsible purchase decisions.
GET OUR CONSCIOUS CONSUMER GUIDE!
13 easy and actionable steps to get started on your conscious consumer journey.
How the Conscious Consumption Movement Came to Prominence
Conscious consumerism spreads as more and more consumers become more aware (or should I say…conscious) of harsh realities related to each purchase such as climate change and pollution, as well as grossly underpaid workers with poor working conditions.
Consumers increasingly pay mind to the impact their actions have on every stakeholder affected in the process of creating and delivering the product they buy.
Technology makes buying easier than it’s ever been. Technology also makes conscious decision making easier if you know where to look. With a brief search online, you can find much of the information you need to navigate your buying practices toward more ethical and sustainable options.
Of course, we, at Grow Ensemble, exist to connect people with values-aligned companies, organizations, and communities.
When searching for information, some companies themselves embrace transparency as a tenant of business. Our partners at A Good Company, for example, share publicly how their products are thought up, sourced, and what materials they use. They share their decision-making process with their customers, so everyone can see how each product came to be what is delivered to your door (in their own stone paper shipping material).
This level of insight into business operations has historically been exclusively available to those involved in the business, leaving buyers without much to base purchasing decisions on outside of price and end-product quality.
The more we understand our impact, the more we can each take action to make that impact positive. Then, we can work our positive impact into each decision we make as individuals, citizens, and consumers.
Has Consumer Consciousness Changed the World?
Here’s an encouraging statistic: a whopping 73% of global consumers say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.
As consumers become increasingly aware of consumer goods’ effects on their bodies and the world around them, they’re also more interested in buying sustainable products. Millennials are reportedly willing to even pay more for these products over more destructive alternatives. And it’s not just millennials. In the US alone, consumers are expected to spend $150 billion on sustainable products by 2021.
The Benefits of Conscious Consumerism
As an individual, it may be hard to see the benefits of being a conscious consumer. What does buying organic soap or boycotting a company known for using sweatshops do in the long run? But adding up each person’s actions equates to big changes in the grand scheme of things.
The same logic applies to harmful behavior such as littering. A person might be ok with throwing a candy wrapper on the sidewalk, but imagine if every single person had this attitude. Many parts of the world already have to deal with more waste than they know what to do with.
Plus, consumer opinion and individual action trigger exponential change! The reality is that for many of us, price is the determinative factor in our purchasing habits by necessity.
But, when individuals consume (or choose not to consume) with impact in mind, industry responds to meet consumer demands, and this expands accessibility. With access to more information and more product choices, more people are given the opportunity to weigh in on the ethics and standards of our day to day consumption.
Okay, but does it really make any difference? Do big companies care what we think? Well, like we mentioned, the trends on the consumer-side are clear: we want to engage with companies that prioritize social and environmental wellbeing.
Before 2013, only 20% of S&P 500 companies chose to disclose their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) information—that means finding that information took major sleuthing on the part of buyers if it was even possible at all. Parallel to conscious consumer trends, however, in 2019, 90% of S&P 500 companies published sustainability/responsibility reports. In short, they are definitely listening.
Still not convinced?
Let’s look at another sector, organic farming in the U.S., as an example of how conscious consumerism can affect change: Twenty years ago, organic farming was a niche industry with $3.6 billion in sales in 1997.
But as more consumers began to appreciate the idea of agriculture free from toxic synthetic pesticides that pollute air and water and degrade soil, they started shifting their purchases, starting with food.
By 2016, organic food sales had boomed to $43.3 billion, and further up to $50 billion in 2019.
Today, the industry continues to see the needle move further and further toward better-for-the-world practices. The future of agriculture holds regenerative practices that will improve the health of the planet beyond what we could’ve imagined decades ago, even helping to reverse climate change.
More good news: Consumer impact is having other world—and market-changing effects. It turns out choosing renewable energy is more than just a fashionable trend. Thanks to growing demand as more and more people are installing solar panels, buying renewable energy credits, and using green power for a variety of purposes, renewable energy sources have become even cheaper than coal and natural gas!
Criticisms of the Conscious Consumption Movement
For all the praise that conscious consumerism and conscious consumers receive, there is continuing criticism of accessibility.
The fact of the matter is that many sustainable products are more expensive than their counterparts. In certain cases, they’re even considered luxury items. Needless to say, high-end luxury items are out of reach for most people. This leaves much of our population unable to participate, kind of eviscerating Buchanan’s “pure democracy” idea.
If much of our community doesn’t have the option to vote with their dollar for sustainability, they are left not only without their voices heard of the issues of corporate impact, but also exposed to the products and practices conscious consumers are speaking out against. Often, the communities most damaged by corporate irresponsibility are the exact communities who can’t opt for better-for-the-world alternatives due to cost constraints.
This is a major issue and accessibility to healthier, more ethical products must be universal because in the end, it’s not a preference, it’s a necessity—the thing that makes products ethical is that they are good for humans and planet, and that is important for us all!
The more consumers demand ethical, organic, and fair trade products, the more commonplace they’ll be, and the cheaper they’ll become, which makes them more accessible to everyone. Sustainability should be the norm, and we are definitely making progress to that end, but there’s still work to do.
Unfortunately, oftentimes, what people say they want to do doesn’t align with what they actually do. Consumers want to make more ethical choices with their purchases, but unsurprisingly, price and convenience remain powerful driving factors. In certain cases, those are the determining factors for product choice which is why those consumers often opt for the cheapest product, regardless of the underlying ethical implications. The gargantuan success of Amazon is an example of exactly this.
That being said, when we look at sustainable products that are minimally or moderately more expensive, conscious consumers have to consider the total cost in the long run. The fashion industry is a prime example of this.
Sustainable, circular fashion—clothing made from organic, reusable materials—can last for years and reduce truck loads of textile waste per day, whereas fast fashion sources leave textiles with rips or tears after only a few outings putting more and more into our landfills. We do have to give kudos to H&M for vowing to use recyclable materials by 2030, though.
The critics also find fault with shoppers that buy green products to look good and quell their guilt rather than doing so out of a genuine desire to help the planet and the people in it. The fact of the matter is, not everyone will be driven by the same things to help others and the planet—and that’s ok! The results of conscious consumerism are the same regardless of the motivations behind it.
The key is sustaining progress. Like any movement that aims to combat the status quo, it’s an ongoing effort that needs to grow and be cultivated. The good news is that there are signs of progress as we outlined above. The more consumers demand that companies behave ethically, the more likely they are to make conscious business decisions by considering all their stakeholders.
10 Ways You Can Be a Conscious Consumer
There are many ways that you can be a conscious consumer and do your part in making the world a better place:
- Incorporate minimalism into your life as much as possible. Distinguish between necessary and unnecessary buys. When searching for everyday products, consider how they are made and their entire lifecycle impact—our partner, A Good Company, is leading the way on this front.
- Choose to buy from companies that put planet and people first. Our friends at A Good Company aren’t alone in their efforts to redefine business as a force for good.
- Buy fair trade coffee, fashion, handicrafts, fruit and more.
- Buy earth friendly products that are made with natural ingredients and materials, e.g. a composting phone case. And these don’t just have to be for you! Check out our list of the perfect environmentally friendly gifts.
- Buy cruelty-free, plastic-free toiletries and cosmetics.
- Limit air travel and get around by using rideshares, biking, taking the train and public transport and if possible, drive electric vehicles
- Go zero-waste.
- Eliminate the use of single-use plastics and use reusable cups, utensils, bags and containers instead.
- Reuse items and buy second-hand whenever you can: peruse flea markets, borrow from friends and family, shop on online marketplaces and try to fix broken goods rather than buying new.
- Always recycle paper and plastic, dispose of old clothes responsibly, and consider composting at home.
Bonus: don’t stop at where and what you buy, consider where your dollars call home and make the switch to an eco-conscious, socially responsible bank.
GET OUR CONSCIOUS CONSUMER GUIDE!
13 easy and actionable steps to get started on your conscious consumer journey.
How Can You Determine Which Companies are Ethical?
Companies understand that being ethical is in vogue so their marketing messaging touts sustainability and ethical practices. While that may be a sign of the prevailing conscious consumer (woo!), it’s always good to look a little deeper to make sure companies are actually taking action consistent with what they’re promoting.
It can be hard to know what to look for when determining whether a company is ethical or not. But once you can identify the characteristics of truly socially responsible companies, you’ll be able to parse through what is pandering and what sustainability goes to the core of a company’s operations.
Social entrepreneurs are everywhere, and the number is only growing! We suggest looking into which companies are certified B Corporations. These companies undergo a rigorous vetting process through the B Impact Assessment that scores impact across business operations.
Conscious Consumerism is Only One of our Tools, but Still One to Use
It would be naive to say that buying things is going to save the planet; it won’t.
However, it would be equally naive to resign ourselves to inaction. Unless you live off the grid, grow your own food, build your own shelter, etc.—more power to self-sustaining individuals!—buying things is an inevitable fact of your existence.
If we have to be consumers, why not vote with our dollars like we mean it and buy from companies who genuinely care about making the world a better place? Why not support environmentally friendly companies that prioritize our planet’s health? Why not boycott companies who engage in labor unethical practices?
When you look at it as if you’re fighting an insurmountable beast, it seems like a futile, unwinnable undertaking, but the fact is, every single bit counts. Taking on that perspective is critical in being a conscious individual, not just a conscious consumer.
So much can be done: We can take institutional actions such as supporting our governments in investing in renewable energy; group action volunteering time and money to organizations fighting for the rights of marginalized groups; community action encouraging our friends, family, and colleagues to go green; and, as you know, individual action, including using our dollar as conscious consumers.
Is it easy? Not by a long shot. Is it worth it? Hell yeah.
Jennifer is a writer that believes in lifelong learning through self-education. When she’s not writing, you can find her burying herself in books, dancing, training Muay Thai, exploring the world and reversing her habit of saying “like” as slang.
She also finds it bizarre to speak about herself in the third person so this is where she’ll end the bio.