What Conscious Consumerism Really Means

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Conscious consumerism can mean more sustainable impact. But it’s a goal companies and consumers need to achieve together.  

“The Basics” provides essential knowledge about core business sustainability topics.

“Vote with your dollar.” It’s a phrase you’ve probably heard before, a rallying cry for consumers to put their money where their mouth is and buy what they believe in.  

But how much power do consumers have? What’s their responsibility to consume “consciously,” and how should companies support these efforts? 

Consumers often receive mixed messages about the scale of their impact. On one hand, consumer spending is the engine of a country’s economy. At the same time, the economic, social, and environmental impacts of each individual’s purchasing decisions typically drive very little change at scale. 

It can be enough to stop people from trying to do the right thing. And that’s before one considers the fact that a lack of measurement and transparency prevents consumers and companies alike from knowing what “the right thing” even is. 

“It’s daunting and overwhelming for a lot of consumers, and most don’t know where to start, so they don’t do anything at all,” says Andrew Kahan, manager of community engagement at B Lab, a nonprofit that develops certification standards for better business practices.  

The conscious consumerism trend 

Still, there’s a persistent urge among consumers to do the right thing, whatever that may mean, and it’s demonstrated by a rise in conscious consumption. Some key statistics:  

  • There was a 71 percent increase in Google searches for sustainable goods between 2016 and 2021, according to WWF. 
  • Customers are willing to pay a price premium of 10 percent on average for socially conscious products, according to NBS research. 
  • 57 percent of McKinsey survey participants have already made changes to their lifestyles to decrease their impact on the environment in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic.

What is conscious consumerism? 

There are a lot of terms out there, from “socially conscious” to “green” to “ethical” consumerism. They’re all linked, says Remi Trudel, marketing professor at Boston University. They represent decisions made with the intention to benefit or limit the impact on the environment or society.  

Every decision of what to buy, how much to buy, how much to consume, and how to dispose has a direct impact on the environment and society,” says Trudel. Consumerism is about actions we take at the point of purchase, but it’s also about the way we live in the world: for example, keeping a house thermostat low or choosing to walk instead of drive.

What drives conscious consumer behavior?  

“Between the pandemic and climate change and the natural disasters or humanitarian disasters, it’s very easy to feel disconnected from a lot of those things,” says Tatiana Schlossberg, climate journalist and author of Inconspicuous Consumption. “But one area where people feel like they have an immediate impact is in the things that they buy.”  

After all, it’s much easier for consumers to choose which brand of widget to buy than to singlehandedly change an entire company’s operations or force legislation through the government. Voting with your dollar, then, is a way to reclaim some power.  

At the end of the day, conscious consumption doesn’t just make consumers feel good. As more people participate in ethical purchasing decisions, businesses shift the way they work. For example, since 2016, WWF has found there’s been a 45 percent increase in food, cosmetic, and natural pharmaceutical companies that have committed to protecting biodiversity in their sourcing practices. 

The journey toward ethical consumption practices is a joint one between consumers and companies reinforcing positive behaviors. Conscious consumerism becomes easier as responsible practices are more widely adopted at the business level; however, the adoption of standards relies on consumer demand.  

How far can conscious consumerism take us?  

Most experts agree that consumers have some power, but that they can’t carry the full burden of sustainability change. 

“There’s been too much responsibility placed on the consumer; it’s much easier [for] a company to do something.” Schlossberg says. “If all products or most products are made with environmentally baseline standards or social standards, then it’s not up to the consumer to make the choice. Some of that [change] has to come from the companies themselves and some of that will come from government regulation.”  

Researcher Remi Trudel agreed: “The bigger problem is getting firms and government to make changes that don’t rely on consumers to ‘do the right thing.’ 

Right now, even the best-intentioned consumer lives in a system that makes change difficult. For example: Products often aren’t made to last. Recycling is confusing and often unavailable.  

Let’s dive deeper into how businesses can support conscious consumers, and how individuals can act according to their ideals.  

3 ways businesses can support conscious consumerism 

The “SHIFT” model provides a guide for helping consumers make sustainable choices. Developed by researchers at the University of British Columbia, it builds on human characteristics, often already used in marketing [1]. Here are some of the recommended approaches. 

  • Use Social influence: We all tend to act in ways that we think are socially acceptable. So if people believe that others are buying green products, for example, they are more likely to buy them ourselves. Companies can communicate this kind of information in advertising, e.g. highlighting a product as popular or even “cool.”  
  • Enable Sustainable Habits: We tend to do what is easy, and to act according to habits or routines. Companies can make sustainable behaviours easy: for example, by selling items in recycled containers. They can also help people establish new habits, as when energy companies provide incentives for household efficiency audits and improvements. 
  • Promote Positive Self-image : We all want to think well of ourselves. Companies can help consumers see themselves as positive actors for a better world, by presenting information positively and making impacts as concrete as possible.  

How can individuals practice conscious consumerism? 

Just as doing the right thing isn’t one single course of action, there isn’t one right way to practice conscious consumerism. One of the reasons it can be difficult for consumers to practice conscious consumerism is the lack of transparency when it comes to measuring and understanding the impacts of a company’s practices.  

“[U]sually as consumers, we don’t have all the information to be able to make the perfect choice, if there is one,” Schlossberg says, “so people should really think about one thing or a few things that they care about and try to make decisions based on that, because otherwise you can really drive yourself crazy.” 

Whether it’s researching who is growing your food, taking another look at your financial investments, or reconsidering where your electricity comes from, starting small can make decision-making more manageable.  

Third-party certifications can also help cut through the noise. “Marketing is marketing, and even if you think you’re impervious to it, you’re not,” Kahan says. “I feel that the [third-party] verification is one of the best, most effective, and efficient ways to cut through greenwashing.” 

After all, it’s much easier to understand a few standards rather than entire landscapes of products and companies. Third-party certifications can occur at different scales, such as across companies, as the B Corp certification, or at the product level. Examples of standards at the product level include Fairtrade certification (for ethically produced goods), the Leaping Bunny Program (for animal cruelty-free products), and FSC certification (to ensure responsibly managed forests).   

Of course, consumers are left with the issue of needing to know how to parse through standards. The good news? “Standards are very hard to create and take a lot of time,” Kahan says, “and some of them fade, and some of them have holes poked in them.” The lasting power of certain certifications could reflect that they have been tested over time, “to ensure that it’s real and it has integrity,” Kahan says. 

Standards should be updated regularly to incorporate new considerations as consumers’ values and expectations change. For example, B Lab will be including diversity, equity, and inclusion in its next iteration of its standards — this change comes following feedback from participants.  

Consumers and companies are on a journey together 

Certifications are one tool to increase transparency and empower decision-making for consumers. Kahan says of the B Corp certification, “I think it’s a starting point for a lot of consumers. And for companies that are pursuing and achieving the milestone of getting certified, it’s … hopefully a start of accountability to their impact journey.”  

Ultimately, as consumer interest in sustainability and ethical consumption increases, businesses must embrace the role of change agents. “It’s a collective effort,” Kahan says. “It’s bigger than just an environmental footprint. It’s really going a step beyond, and thinking about, ‘How can companies partner pre-competition or change a way of doing business within their entire industry?’” 

There’s also an opportunity for marketers to take a leadership role. “Marketers have strategically used product design, advertising, and other marketing cues to drive people to purchase and consume more,” Trudel wrote in a recent review. The same approaches could be used to help consumers behave more sustainably. “We can then design products that will allow for sustainable behavior and ultimately make them habitual or automatic.” 

For a primer on how businesses can market socially responsible goods and services, click here. 

About the Series

“The Basics” provides essential knowledge about core business sustainability topics. All articles are written or reviewed by an expert in the field. The Network for Business Sustainability builds these articles for business leaders thinking ahead.

Review of this article provided by:

Dr. Remi Trudel, Associate Professor of Marketing at Boston University’s Questrom School of Management. His research interests focus on consumer well-being. His research agenda is driven by a desire to understand consumer decision making in three substantive areas – sustainability, health and diet, and personal finance – so as to provide consumers, marketers, and policy makers with the means to make better, more sustainable decisions for themselves, society, and the environment.

Special thanks to Dr. Rishad Habib, one of the authors of the SHIFT model, for reviewing our description of SHIFT. Dr. Habib is Assistant Professor in Marketing at Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University.

Footnotes

[1] Here’s more information on the “SHIFT” model of changing consumer behaviour. It shows how to help consumers make sustainable choices using these approaches: Social influence, Habits, Individual self, Feelings and cognition and Tangibility” (SHIFT). Researchers Katherine White, David J. Hardisty, and Rishad Habib detailed the model in an academic article and in Harvard Business Review 

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  • Heeseung Kim is an experienced communicator and relationship builder working to make sustainable decision-making easier for everyone. She specializes in food innovation and holds an MBA/MS in sustainability from University of Michigan. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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