Conscious consumerism — sometimes called ethical consumerism, conscientious consumerism or green consumerism — is shopping in ways you believe makes a positive social, environmental or economic impact.
Conscious consumers look beyond a product’s immediate features and “vote with their dollars,” said Ela Veresiu, associate professor of marketing at York University Schulich School of Business.
“A socially or environmentally conscious consumer will first think whether consumption is even necessary,” Veresiu told Built In. “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.”
What Is Conscious Consumerism?
Conscious consumerism approaches shopping as a practice charged with weighty ethical and political implications. It takes the form of buying — or boycotting — certain brands based on your beliefs, principles and awareness of how such purchases may affect the wider world.
Conscious consumerism manifests in many ways, like:
- Shopping for green cleaning products and fair-trade coffee.
- Opting for a small electric vehicle instead of a gas-guzzling truck.
- Boycotting fast-fashion brands or companies that treat workers unfairly.
- Purchasing books from Black-owned retailers instead of from Amazon.
- Buying Nike sneakers because of its partnership with outspoken former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick (or burning them for the exact same reason).
Recent examples of conscious consumerism have had less to do with product performance and have had more to do with support of different social causes, according to Remi Trudel, associate professor of marketing at Boston University.
In other words, conscious consumers 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.
“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 the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer and the resulting nationwide protests, Gushers tweeted this from its corporate account:
“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, in this era of ethical consumerism.
Conscious Consumerism History
In his book Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, Cornell University American Studies professor Lawrence Glickman 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,” 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.”
“These early consumer activists understood consumer power as inevitably a moral and ethical force.”
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.
In the past decade or so, 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.
Various 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.
Conscious Consumerism Benefits
The benefits of being a conscious consumer include:
- Reducing your individual impact on the environment and curbing your contribution to waste.
- Putting pressure on brands that use unsavory business practices so they change their ways.
- Supporting communities or groups that have historically faced economic disadvantages due to structural inequities.
For brands, the benefit of appealing to conscious consumers is twofold:
- It typically means you are a socially responsible company and positively impact the environment or society, whether in the form of reducing your organization’s carbon footprint or donating profits to charitable causes, for example.
- It often adds esteem to your brand, bolstering brand equity and differentiating your brand in the marketplace over time.
That said, in trying to cater to an audience of conscious consumers, brands run the risk of putting their foot in their mouth if they don’t back up their claims with real action.
“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.
As Harvard Business Review noted, several companies 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.”
Conscious Consumerism Impact
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. And yet, “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.”