Where Did Conscious Consumerism Come From?

The movement long predates the organic grocery aisle.
Hal Koss
June 10, 2021
Updated: September 1, 2021
Hal Koss
June 10, 2021
Updated: September 1, 2021

Early one morning last summer, a large crowd lined up around the block waiting for Semicolon Bookstore — Chicago’s only Black-woman-owned bookstore — to open its doors.

It was a couple weeks after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, was filmed while killing George Floyd. People were seeking out books about the injustices perpetrated against Black Americans. And even though it was cheaper and more convenient to shop at Amazon, many opted to purchase from Black-owned retailers — like Semicolon — as a way to support the communities most affected by police brutality.

What Is Conscious Consumerism?

Conscious consumerism — sometimes called ethical consumerism or conscientious consumerism — is shopping in ways one believes makes a positive social, environmental or economic impact.

This impulse, commonly referred to as conscious consumerism, manifests in other ways as well. For example: shopping for green cleaning products and fair-trade coffee; boycotting fast-fashion brands or companies that treat workers unfairly; buying Nike sneakers because of its partnership with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick; burning them for the exact same reason.

Whatever cause they’re supporting — or boycotting — conscious consumers look beyond a product’s immediate features and “vote with their dollars,” Ela Veresiu, associate professor of marketing at York University Schulich School of Business, told Built In.

“A socially or environmentally conscious consumer will first think whether consumption is even necessary,” she said. “And once they decide to buy, they do their homework and look at who is providing the product or service that they would like to purchase, and how the product or service impacts the environment and society through its design, delivery and even discard.”

Conscious consumerism isn’t new. But lately, it feels impossible to consider shopping an ethically or politically neutral act.

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How We Got Here

Conscious consumerism’s rise has gone hand in hand with the prevalence of natural disasters and activism movements — the visibility of which have been amplified by social media and news coverage, elevating them from local news events into widespread cultural concerns, Veresiu said.

She cited the footage of the wildfires that tore through the United States and Australia, and prominent voices like that of young climate change activist Greta Thunberg calling everyday people to arms as recent catalysts. These cultural flashpoints contribute to a growing understanding that some systemic problems are the sum of everyday individual actions, which has caused people to discern their own impact.

In response to this shift in consumer sentiment, some brands are increasingly willing to share their labor and sourcing data — either as a way to differentiate themselves in a fragmented marketplace, or because social media has made it difficult to hide bad practices. In either case, consumer demand for this transparency has surged.

And although it’s been at a slow, steady boil for decades, the past year of pandemic lockdown has further accelerated conscious consumerism’s ascent.

“The pandemic ... has really shifted people’s focus to supporting small local businesses over big brands as much as possible,” Veresiu said. “Of course, Amazon sadly excluded.”

Good Must Grow, a marketing firm that works with socially responsible companies, publishes a yearly index gauging the momentum of conscious consumer spending. The firm noted that conscious consumerism soared in late spring of 2020, during the pandemic’s early days, when expressions like “we’re all in this together” were at their peak.

But the firm also noted that conscious consumer spending sank back down as the year progressed. Perhaps for many, shopping with intentionality became too exhausting a chore to keep up as the pandemic stretched into the fall months.

 

Conscious Consumerism’s Early Origins

Lawrence Glickman is an American Studies professor at Cornell University’s history department. In his book Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, he traces back the earliest modern-looking permutation of conscious consumerism to the free produce movement of the 1820s.

Led by Quaker and free Black abolitionists, the free produce movement encouraged people to buy free-made goods — that is, products not made with slave labor. They even organized “free produce” stores, making it easier for fellow consumers to shop for the alternative.

It was an act of solidarity and a rejection of the unjust status quo. And by spending their dollars elsewhere, these activists hoped to do their part in reducing the power of the structures that were propped up by slave labor.

“These early consumer activists understood consumer power as inevitably a moral and ethical force, since in this worldview consumers were responsible for the far-reaching impact of their actions.”

“These early consumer activists understood consumer power as inevitably a moral and ethical force, since in this worldview consumers were responsible for the far-reaching impact of their actions,” Glickman wrote. “They often used the metaphor of a chain to refer to the binding relationships which linked individual consumers to producers of the goods they bought as well as other consumers.”

For the decades following, conscious consumerism flared up on occasion, until it found a renewed energy in the 1990s that has lasted since.

Glickman attributes its recent sticking power partly to the proliferation of grassroots periodicals, which sought to keep the historical memory of boycotts and consumer activism alive. Another factor is that, as we approached the turn of the millennium, consumers simply stopped having faith in government regulation to bend the market in an ethical direction.

It was around this time, in the mid-to-late 1990s, that various conscious consumer movements — like fair-trade and slow food — began to pop up and gain traction.

 

What Are Brands to Do?

Remi Trudel, associate professor of marketing at Boston University, told Built In that, in recent years, most examples of conscious consumerism have had less to do with product performance and have had more to do with support of different social causes.

In other words, people rarely avoid a product these days on the basis of its packaging’s recyclability. But they will boycott brands because they don’t support Black Lives Matter or align themselves with LGBTQIA+ causes, for instance.

Trudel says that’s mostly because doing things like using recyclable packaging and keeping obviously harmful chemicals out of your product has simply become the cost of doing business these days.

But it’s also partly because consumers — of younger generations in particular — expect brands to have skin in the game.

In June of 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resulting nationwide protests, Gushers tweeted: “Gushers wouldn’t be Gushers without the Black community and your voices. We’re working with @fruitbythefoot on creating space to amplify that. We see you. We stand with you.”

Such a gesture from a fruit snack brand would be unheard of 10 years ago. Not anymore.

“It’s table stakes for brands to say that they have a cause mission,” Karen Goldfeder, VP of business development at DoSomething, a global nonprofit that focuses on mobilizing young people to make social change, previously told Built In. “It’s now required to say how you are going to show up at this really pivotal moment in history and show what your brand stands for, where you’ll compromise and where you won’t.”

In trying to cater to an audience of conscious consumers, though, aren’t brands at heightened risk of putting their foot in their mouth?

“Brands are increasingly — or should increasingly be — conscious of the worst-case scenario today, which is to be labeled and perceived by the general public or a mass group of consumers or potential consumers as greenwashing or woke-washing,” Veresiu said.

“It’s no longer enough just to have marketing material that speaks to a cause. You need to back it up with your internal affairs.”

Greenwashing is when a company claims its products are environmentally friendly, but the claims are either deceptive or cannot be substantiated.

Woke-washing is when a company signals its commitment to social activism in its marketing efforts, but internally fails to meet basic diversity, equity and inclusion standards.

As Harvard Business Review noted, companies such as Whole Foods, Adidas and Pinterest have been publicly called out for woke-washing by current and former employees, who complained that “corporate statements of solidarity glossed over internal inequities.”

“It’s no longer enough just to have marketing material that speaks to a cause,” Veresiu said. “You need to back it up with your internal affairs.”

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Does Conscious Consumerism ‘Work’?

Does conscious consumerism work? Does shopping for certain products or avoiding certain brands help bring about a cleaner environment, or a more just and equitable society? Or does it just allow people to feel better about themselves and make brands get more clever about their messaging?

“I share your skepticism,” Veresiu said when I asked her this question. “Conscious consumerism is a good starting point for individuals to start taking action and start thinking about how their individual behavior impacts larger communities, social groups, the planet, the environment.”

“There’s a lot more pressure on individuals to become conscious, and to think about what they purchase,” Veresiu added. “But much more needs to be done by governments and corporations around the world to ensure a safe and prosperous planet for all of us.”

A series of experiments recorded in The Myth of the Ethical Consumer show that many consumers who claim to want ethical products are indifferent when actually given the choice to buy them.

Even when it means passing over an ethical product for an unsavory alternative, people don’t want to sacrifice the quality and functionality of what they buy, despite reporting that ethics are important to them.

“It seems,” the book’s authors wrote, “that survey radicals turn into economic conservatives at the checkout.”

Even so, Trudel said, the gap between the profession of conscious consumerism and the practice of it still signals that ethical consumption is a socially desirable behavior. And people tend to behave in ways that society values — when those actions are within reach.

So if it becomes easier and more affordable for a person to be a conscious consumer — or if social nudges are calibrated to make ethical consumption a more realistic option and less of an aspirational one — the gap between saying you’re a conscious consumer and being a conscious consumer will inevitably shrink.

In other words, Trudel said, “if you make it easy for that person to do it, they’ll do it.”

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