By guest blogger Linda Ward, Retail Renewal
“Consumerism is about buying things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress friends we don’t have time for” according to Leo Horrigan and is the opposite of conscious consumerism.
What is a conscious consumer? What do they buy – or not buy, which is more to the point. How does this affect the majority of consumers and therefore how do retailers react to this growing trend? A few big questions and I will try to answer them and give some context to the trend called Conscious Consumerism.
Jessi Baker, Founder of Provenance (more about her later) defines Conscious Consumerism in a 2015 article as: “a movement of people who seek out ways to make positive decisions about what to buy and look for a solution to the negative impact consumerism is having on our world.”
But conscious consumerism wasn’t invented in 2015, this earlier definition from Frederick E. Webster, Jr. describes the socially conscious consumer as:
“a consumer who takes into account the public consequences of his or her private consumption or who attempts to use his or her purchasing power to bring about social change.”
This was written up in the Journal of Consumer Research in 1975 – coincidentally (or perhaps not!) the same year that The Good Life began running on BBC. For those of you not old enough to remember this was the show about Tom Good, a plastics designer in midlife crisis, who moves to the country with his wife to live the good life and become self-sufficient.
Popping out to buy a litre of milk and loaf of bread may seem a simple matter but this everyday action can have complex consequences on our planet. However, your consumption can help to change the world for the better. Think of the overnight shift in Irish shopping habits with the introduction of the plastic bag levy. Or the effect that the brilliant David Attenborough programme Blue Planet II has had on our attitude to single use plastic. Coffee chain Insomnia have just introduced compostable take away cups to their 150 branches and 400 self-service units in Ireland.
Or is it as easy as that? There is a different point of view which is that the marketplace makes it very difficult to make sustainable choices. Whilst you can continue to make your own personal consumer choice, the real value is in lobbying to change the policies and practices of government and business to make better environmental decisions.
Alden Wicker puts it forcefully in his article:
“Most of those clothes have been designed in the first place to be obsolete after a year or two, just so that you’ll buy more. And only 2% of that clothing is made in the US—and when it is, it’s 20% more expensive. Palm oil, an ingredient that is the world’s leading cause of rainforest destruction and carbon emissions, is in half of our packaged food products, hidden behind dozens of different names. These are just a few examples of how the government and businesses collude to nudge you into blindly destroying the environment on a regular basis, whether you choose to buy organic milk or not.”
Other issues that can affect consumer choice are equal pay, environmentally conscious manufacturing processes and farming practices, prevention of counterfeit goods and human trafficking.
What’s happening in the marketplace?
This brings me back to Jessi Baker and her company Provenance. Their social mission is “to empower people to change the way the global economy works.” They do this by providing information on the supply chain of a product in a transparent way so that shoppers can make informed choices about their purchases. The Co-op use their software to trace their fresh produce from its origin to the supermarket shelf. The International Pole and Line Foundation use it to track tuna through the supply chain to markets in the UK, US and Japan. Only set up in 2016 this young company already has some impressive organisations on its client list. It gives businesses a proven method to show the provenance of their goods. In turn, this can provide the consumer with the very knowledge and power bemoaned by Alden Wicker above.
After the oil industry, the retail manufacturing industry is the second most polluting industry on earth. Fast disposable fashion is the order of the day for many large and not so large clothing retailers. What we don’t want or have grown tired of goes into landfill or into the huge textile recycling industry to be exported to Africa or Asia. A small proportion is remade into new goods or used for insulation, industrial wipes etc.
Signs of change
There is a small but growing movement for sustainable fashion, sold mainly online. Examples of these companies are Peopletree and Outsider (fashion) and Veja (runners). Some of the larger companies offer a take back scheme such as H&M and TKMaxx who provide boxes in store to donate your clothes for recycling, usually with a voucher as an incentive. Marks & Spencer have partnered with Oxfam with the concept of shwopping, where you can return your unwanted clothing to M&S and it is donated to Oxfam, who will sell it through their shops, online or recycle it.
Inditex, the global Spanish retailer of brands such as Zara, Pull and Bear, Massimo Dutti and Bershka have taken a more strategic approach, “The Right to Wear. Our priorities are the protection of the environment and human rights, through focusing on traceability and transparency.” As part of this they have launched Closing the Loop, where nothing goes to waste. The aim is to move away from the linear model towards the circular economy. This approach follows the life cycle of the product from manufacturing through distribution and the eventual sale of the product. It doesn’t end there as the producer is responsible for the entire life cycle of the product until it is reused or recycled. It is heartening to see that a large multinational retailer is taking a more fundamental approach to the conscious consumer concept.
The circular economy
A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life. Definition courtesy of www.wrap.org.uk
How can retailers react to this growing movement?
A starting point would be to ask your customers’ views. Are they aware and do they care? Depending on what you sell you might already have a good idea of the provenance of your product but do you communicate this to your customers? An environmental audit on your business processes will show where you can improve and is often a cost saving exercise. Then there’s the opportunities in selling more sustainable products. I’ll be expanding on this in a future blog post.
The last question – who is the conscious consumer?
The answer to this is probably anyone. There is no doubt that climate change exists and its impact is effecting and will effect everyone’s lives. Whether we think of ourselves as conscious consumers or not, we all fit into that category in some shape or form. People who recycle conscientiously, use a refillable water bottle, have a reusable coffee cup in their bag, mend something rather than buy a new one or try to reduce packaging when they shop are all conscious consumers. Social media has played a big role in raising awareness of single use plastic bottles and the pollution they cause. This consciousness will often lead to thinking about other ways to reduce our carbon footprint on the world.
Like many big issues there is not one solution. Small personal changes will help to change the culture of how we consume. However, business also has a role to provide us with the information and choices to be able to make those changes.