Conscious consumerism – a key trend for independent retailers or a marketing gamble?

In August 2019, 32 fashion companies including Chanel, Prada and H&M announced they were signing the Fashion Pact at the Group of 7 summit in Biarritz, France.

The Fashion Pact is a non-legally binding agreement between fashion companies to help to combat the environmental issues that have plagued the 21st century, most notably with reports of wildfires in the Amazon dominating headlines around the world.

Primark, another fast-fashion emporium, also announced plans to improve its sustainability grade by training 160,000 cotton farmers in India, Pakistan, and China in environmentally friendly farming methods, in the hopes of succeeding in its sustainable cotton program.

While cynics might argue that many of these brands are scrambling to align themselves with sustainability to be trendy, conscious consumerism (or corporate responsibility) has become increasingly important to modern shoppers.

Indeed, the Euromonitor International flagged conscious consumerism as one of its key global consumer trends in 2019, while Patagonia, an American clothing company, buys and sells massive swathes of products based on its ethos of sustainability.

conscious consumerism

What is conscious consumerism and why does it matter?

And, more importantly, do people actually care?

Conscious consumerism, in a nutshell, is a long-term push for anti-cruelty and mindful consumption from consumers across every sector from beauty through to everyday shopping.

According to GlobalData, the number of vegans in the U.S. grew from 1 percent to 6 between 2014 and 2017, up a meteoric 600 percent. Vegan goods are more readily available, with specialty stores popping up all over the world, while the beauty industry at large has been disrupted by a move to ban animal testing.

And it’s not just impacting massive corporations.

Pointy retailer Buddha Beauty is an ethical independent salon and beauty product seller based in the U.K., in operation since 2011.

Founder Llewelyn Thomas travelled extensively in the far east before settling in Manchester to build his salon and beauty care brand. Llewelyn’s brand ethos is simple: only vegan and cruelty-free products are available through his business.  

It’s a move that has paid off for Llewelyn.

“We are gaining interest from a lot of retailers who are looking to give their customers a more ethical option,” says Llewelyn. “Every day in the news, we’re seeing more and more media coverage showing the devastation that’s occurring around the world – and it’s starting to have an effect on consumers.

“Conscious consumerism is, no doubt, going to go from strength-to-strength as children are being taught from an early age about the impact they have on our world. There’s a growing awareness to be better – and it’s something that businesses are going to have to match by being more open and transparent in how they operate.”

Llewelyn’s thinking is backed by a study on corporate social responsibility of 1,000 Americans. According to Forbes, 68 percent of millennials bought a product with a social or environmental benefit in the past 12 months, while 87 percent would buy a product with a social and environmental benefit if given the opportunity.

paper straws

However, an article from Heath Shackleford for Fastcompany.com offers a voice of dissent.

“If you want evidence that consumers are conscious, that socially responsible behaviors are en-vogue, that doing good is good for business, you don’t have to look very hard to find it,” he writes.

“There is a mountain of evidence that confirms your hypothesis. It’s clear that doing the right thing will attract customers, and employees, to your organization. But it’s also extremely naïve to assume all is as good as good can be.”

In the most recent Conscious Consumer Spending Index, Shackleford reported record lows in the number of Americans who are purchasing socially responsible products and services and going green.

But does that mean that conscious consumerism is a lie or a cynical marketing cash-grab?

The need for accessibility and hitting all demographics

While conscious consumerism is a growing trend for businesses, it still carries a certain lack of accessibility or a perception that it’s only the youth who care. A prime example, of course, is 16-year-old climate change activist, Greta Thunberg, who has inspired an international youth movement calling for change.

But it’s not just a case of accessibility in the target audience, as in many cases, cruelty-free or ethically sourced goods are more expensive too. They can also be harder to find – and, according to Llewellyn Thomas, “green washing is a growing concern”, with companies jumping onboard corporate responsibility as a marketing move to attract young people.

While shoppers want to be better consumers, the truth is that convenience often still trumps all: undoing bad habits, or indeed creating new ones, takes time, effort – and often – money.

More and more socially-conscious products are wearing the label of ‘luxury brands’ and are out of reach for many shoppers. In Shackleford’s research, price emerged as the number one reason Americans aren’t spending more on socially responsible products and services – no doubt a finding that echoes around the globe.

The demand is there, but pricing is causing a great divide.

And it’s an even bigger split when considering retailers and their own pushes towards conscious consumerism. While fast fashion empires like H&M and Primark can afford to dedicate some of their multi-million income to fashion pacts and sustainability, it’s a luxury that most independent retailers can’t afford, especially if they’re locked in a supply chain that hasn’t been socially conscious from the start.

Independent retailers – a part to play in making sustainability accessible

For most independent retailers, a total sustainability overhaul is out of the picture. But that doesn’t mean that small changes won’t help.

In an ideal world, independent retailers will overhaul their supply chain with ethics in mind – but just as most consumers won’t reframe their entire buying patterns, small changes by many will go much further than big changes by a few.

How retailers deal with their waste is one key area, as there are many innovative ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Food retailers are abandoning plastic straws and single-use plastic, while Fast Retailing Group announced its plans to reduce its single-use plastic in its stores and supply chain by 85 percent.

The solution is simple: its stores will switch to eco-friendly paper bags or recycled paper.

It’s a small change that most independent retailers can mirror.

cycle to work

Likewise, retailers can introduce employee benefits around sustainability by offering company bicycles to employees or offering a reduced rate – for example, the company might cover 10 percent of the cost of a bike for its staff.

Small changes shouldn’t be counted out either, like installing solar panels if possible, or switching to more efficient energy-saving bulbs or smart energy meters.

Another option is to provide consumers with boxes in-store where they can donate products for upcycling or to a charity partner.

Whatever they’re doing, retailers should shout about their incentives on their social platforms or with signage in-store: stickers on the windows are an easy way to catch attention. It should be transparent and detailed on the company website too.

Ultimately, good things come in sustainable packages and as Llewelyn Thomas says, “The more people who are purchasing an ethical product, the better.”

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