Means&Matters
Stories of Money and sustainability

The Evolution of the Conscious Consumer

BY Laura K. Wise  
Illustration
Jacky Sheridan

Jan 25th 2021

When Beyoncé released the song “Black Parade” a few months into the coronavirus pandemic, she turned the moment into an opportunity to lift up hundreds of small businesses. Beyoncé promoted the song on Instagram, where she has about 170 million followers. But alongside it she also promoted something called “The Black Parade Route,” a directory on her website featuring more than 700 small businesses owned by Black and African entrepreneurs.

Businesses included in “The Black Parade Route” span industries from fashion, to food, to beauty, to education and fitness and more. As the pandemic battered small businesses everywhere, Beyoncé’s message was straightforward: Consider supporting these shops if you can.

Times and tactics have changed, but the bigger idea isn’t new: In the 50s, shopping and spending were a patriotic duty. After more than a decade of economic depression and war, a good purchaser was a good citizen, propping up the US economy with mass consumption. Recently, consumers have played a similar economic role; retail sales through the early months of the COVID-19 crisis remained strong enough to surprise economists and help stabilize a wobbly economy. But the modern shopper’s sense of civic duty has evolved to be less about “Saving America” and more about mindful consumption that’s good for our community and good for our planet.

A century ago, when a customer walked into a store to buy soap, what mattered was simple: Was soap on the shelf and what did it cost? Today’s customer wants to know if that soap’s ingredients harm the environment and if it was produced with fair labor practices—and they’re willing to pay a premium for products that meet their standards. Nearly half of consumers surveyed in 2019 said they’d pay more for sustainable products, and Gen Z respondents say they’d pay 50-100% more for a sustainable product.

But if that sustainable soap proves problematic, consumers may go beyond not buying it—they’ll protest to demand change.

Over the years, the identity of the conscious consumer has evolved to affect what they buy, their influence over other consumers, their brand loyalty, and even in which employers they’re willing to invest their time and talents.

The Consumer as Citizen

Consumers have been leveraging their purchasing power for centuries. As early as 1767, a movement emerged encouraging American women to “love your country much better than fine things” and shop local to support the Revolution. Quaker abolitionists refused to buy goods produced by enslaved people in the 1840s. And the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s paved the way for the end of segregation laws and the beginning of the American civil rights movement. By the mid-1900s, the concept of voting with your dollar was making its way into academic publications.

A new age of conscious consumerism began as American consumer choices expanded to include sustainable products, giving people the opportunity to buy in the better interest of others. The fair trade movement began in the United States when nonprofit Ten Thousand Villages started purchasing needlework from Puerto Rico. The first official fair trade shop in the US was established in 1958.

“I’m just a woman trying to help other women,” said Edna Ruth Byler, who started Ten Thousand Villages in the 1950s to help the women of La Plata Valley, Puerto Rico, gain economic independence by purchasing their needlework. 

Today, an entire economy has developed around sustainable products:

5.6x Sales of products marked as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster from 2013 to 2018 than conventional products.
$150b Neilsen expects the market for sustainable products to reach $150 billion by 2021.
25x The resale market grew 25x faster than retail last year. 64 million people bought secondhand in 2019.
72% 72 percent of respondents in an Accenture survey said they're buying more environmentally friendly products than five years ago; 81 percent expect to buy more over the next five years.
47% In a 2019 survey, 47 percent of respondents said they would pay more for a sustainable product.
65% Shoppers who are told others are buying eco-friendly products are 65% more likely to buy one.

The Consumer as Activist

As those long-ago Quakers and Revolutionary women demonstrated, conscious consumerism and activism have long been intertwined. But as the world has become more interconnected and communication between consumers has evolved, each person’s ability to influence what other people buy through activism has grown.

The environment has long animated consumer activism. An early impetus for this was the devastating 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. “It was the first oil spill that was televised and brought into everyone’s homes,” said California State University environmental studies professor Sean Anderson to the VC Star. “It really was a visceral experience for folks, even for folks that weren’t from Santa Barbara or Ventura.”

The disaster helped lead to the first Earth Day held on April 22, 1970, which alerted everyday consumers to the dangers of the oil and gas industry they relied on in their daily lives.

Earth Day on April 20, 1970 in New York, New York. 
Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images

Fifty years on, consumer activism is stronger, savvier, and more organized. The rise of social media has accelerated the trend by giving consumer activists powerful organizing platforms. Sleeping Giants was born as a social media-based campaign in response to the 2016 US presidential election. It encourages consumers to boycott brands advertising on media outlets the founders say disseminate misinformation, racism, and sexism. Reportedly, hundreds of advertisers have responded to consumer pressure organized by Sleeping Giants.

Google Trends showed a 300 percent spike in searches for: How to find Black-owned businesses in your area.

Boycotts aren’t the only ways the consumer’s identity as a buyer intersects with the consumer activist. During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Google Trends data showed a 300 percent spike in searches for “How to find Black-owned businesses in your area” in the US. While individual consumer demand to support Black businesses grew, the 15% Pledge emerged, a nonprofit that empowers consumers to call on retailers to dedicate 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.

The Consumer as Brand Loyalist

As interest in sustainability grew, increasingly knowledgeable conscious consumers began to look beyond the environmental and social impact of products and at the brands behind them. They began to demand that companies commit to and provide evidence of their sustainable policies and practices, from fair labor standards for their own employees to their organization’s carbon footprint.

Companies that didn’t live up to their sustainability claims helped give rise to the term “greenwashing,” coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. The word not only described, but also helped raise consumer awareness of dubious environmental claims. The brands that have adopted transparent and meaningful sustainability practices frequently earn the business of consumers who don’t just love their products but are loyal to the brand.

The concept of brand loyalty is nothing new: Consumers have been Coke people or Pepsi people for decades. But whereas brand loyalty was previously based on little but marketing psychology (particularly in the case of Coke and Pepsi), a brand’s commitment to environmental and social good has given conscious consumers something substantial to love. And they do love it: According to a 2017 survey, 90 percent of millennials will buy from a brand if they believe their social and environmental claims; 95 percent say they’ll refer friends and family.

The resilience of Certified B Corporations in tough economic times demonstrates the power of earning that loyalty. B Corps, which balance profit with societal benefit, were 64 percent more likely than other businesses to survive the 2008-09 recession.

“What we’ve really seen over the last 15 to 20 years is the shift toward looking at a whole company—a really comprehensive evaluation of a brand. And that is what is breeding loyalty,” says Jenn Swain, Global Senior Sustainability Manager for snowboarding company and B Corp, Burton. “It’s no longer about the product—it’s the expectation that a company, on the whole, is taking action that has positive impacts for people and the environment.”

The Consumer as Talent

Employers haven’t historically considered their employees as consumers, but the conscious consumer mindset is changing that. A 2019 survey found that half of all respondents and three-quarters of millennials would accept a smaller salary to work for an environmentally responsible company—and more than 70 percent said they’d choose an employer with a strong environmental agenda. In a competitive talent market, the onus is on businesses to meet those demands.

Four in 10 American workers consider themselves activists.

Once hired, employees hold a great deal of influence over their employers. According to Quartz at Work, four in 10 American workers consider themselves activists, having spoken up against or in support of their employer’s actions related to social issues. Examples include Walmart employees’ 2019 walkout protesting gun sales and Wayfair employees’ walkout to protest the company’s sales to Texas detention centers the same year. These actions look like, feel like, and aim for the same outcomes as consumer activism.

“Employees have a voice today that they never did in the past,” says Susan McPherson, CEO of communications consultancy McPherson Strategies. “You now have employee resource groups that are galvanizing companies internally. Many of them own stock in the company that they work for. So they have power.”

That power will likely continue to grow. Employee activism is on the rise, especially among millennials. The demands of the American consumer are now channeled through a wide range of industries—even those that aren’t consumer-facing—through the voices and actions of employees.

The Conscious Consumer Marketplace

While conscious consumers once had to dig to uncover brands that align with their values, today, there are resources to help connect people to brands they want to support.

  • Founded in 1989, Ethical Consumer is a nonprofit that provides shopping guides and maintains an ethical rating database with detailed research on over 40,000 companies, brands, and products.
  • The MyTrestle button is a free web browser plugin that allows you to set the values you care about most. If you land on a brand’s site that matches your values, you’ll get a pop-up to let you know.
  • B Lab, the organization that certifies B Corps, hosts a B Corp Directory that allows consumers to find certified companies by location, industry, and name.
  • 1% for the Planet is a global network of environmental nonprofits and companies that donate 1% of their gross sales to approved nonprofit members. The group maintains a publicly available directory of companies, nonprofits and individuals who are members.

As the identity of the conscious consumer continues to evolve, their expectations for everyone they do business with will evolve as well. Early on, thinking about the impact of a purchase was a big change for many people. Today, consumers not only think about it, they’re educated on it; they understand supply chains, expect transparency from brands, and demand continuous improvement around sustainability.

And those evolving expectations are extending beyond the consumer products industry. Many consumers now realize how banks may be spending their money to support actions that harm the environment. In 2019, banks across the globe contributed more than $735.6 billion in financing for fossil fuel companies.

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Last year, Bank of the West hit the streets to find out what people knew about banks—and their role in the climate crisis. The results might surprise you.

Increasingly, conscious consumers will be interested in working with banks that invest sustainably.

And that’s just one way those who care about the effect their money and resources have on the world will continue to evolve—and how their influence over the future of the planet will grow.

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