Social media, dedicated documentaries, and apps such as Good on You, which evaluates the sustainability of fashion products, are shining a bright spotlight on the scale of damage our consumer footprint is leaving.
As a result, people are beginning to make active life changes to minimise the scale of their personal impact. The percentage of U.S. consumers identifying as vegan, for instance, which is believed to be a more environmentally friendly way of eating, grew from 1% to 6% between 2014 and 2017 — a 600% increase, according to GlobalData.
Consumers are now also more likely to praise or condemn brands according to how well they tread this newly-forged path toward ethical consumption. The result is that many brands are under pressure to demonstrate that this is something they’re thinking about, too.
This shift toward conscious consumerism has roots in more than increased awareness from media exposure. To understand what’s truly driving it and what the opportunity is for brands, we need to look at what’s going on elsewhere in our society, specifically around evolving attitudes toward organisations in power today.
The fact is, people are beginning to lose faith in institutions that were once beacons of trust and reliability. Between fake news, illegal data-harvesting, and the political upheaval we’ve witnessed in the US in recent years, it’s easy to see why.
With the government seemingly unable to fix problems, people have started turning to the next most powerful institutions they can think of for help: brands. This might seem ironic, given that, ultimately, a brand’s purpose is to make money for itself. But, in fact, there is a way for brands to make a positive impact and win favour with picky consumers, all while maintaining the success they’ve worked so hard to create.
Brands can take tangible steps to better the world around them by focusing on specific socio-political flashpoints and making small, but tangible, changes. This will help those brands win people’s trust, as well. A good example of this is outdoor clothing company Patagonia. The brand recently decided to stop selling corporate branded vests to financial firms, choosing to target more environmentally focused companies instead.
Given that our workforce is now on the cusp of millennial domination, it’s essential brands give this due focus. According to research from Morning Consult, nearly 42% of millennials take the ethical and moral standards of a company into account before parting with their hard-earned cash. When people from this generation become the economic prime movers, this demand for ethical integrity will only increase.
Many emerging brands already have this as a key focus, especially given that many have been created by millennials themselves. Patagonia may have paved the way, but now there are numerous companies that have an ethical or environment purpose at their core. This includes the likes of Toms and Warby Parker,which donate shoes and glasses, respectively, for every purchase made.
Larger, more established brands may have their work cut out for them to prove they have a higher-purpose or mission. This will be a tricky change for companies that have long relied on elements such as price and the promise of efficiency to sell their products. To adapt in a way that’s authentic, these companies will need to start incorporating purpose or cause-led values into their brand DNA. They can achieve this through commitment and repetition, whether through their offering itself, their CSR initiatives, or even marketing.
Gillette attempted this with its recent ad spot that homed in on the problem of ‘toxic’ masculinity. It was a bold move, and a departure from Gillette’s previous narrative, which focused on how to enhance your sex appeal as a man. Although many considered the ad more of a gaffe than a success, it got people talking about the issue, and indeed, Gillette itself.
As time goes on, we can only expect to see an increasing number of brands exposed and questioned for their behaviour and choices — whether ethical or environmental. It’s time that brands still stuck in the flagrant consumerism of the past starting listening to the cries of their customers, and make the journey toward ethical consumption a priority, rather than an afterthought.
Alex Gordon is chief executive officer of Sign Salad