The body of research on the growing importance and influence of conscious consumption seems to expand every other day. And whereas previous recessions have heralded a decline in people placing sustainability as a priority, this time around, as Kantar’s Karine Trinquetel has observed, “the story looks different”; the pandemic has only accelerated people’s interest in making more conscious and sustainable choices.
True, there remains a value-action gap; but this gap is closing over time and generations, as improvements in price and performance have made it easier for consumers to make a considered choice at the checkout.
As brands move at pace to adapt and reposition for this movement, we believe there’s a risk of marketers and agencies falling into flawed patterns of thinking, based on unchallenged stereotypes and unconscious bias.
In our recent Futures Pulse Report on Conscious Consumption, we recommended taking a perspective beyond the the prevailing, narrow interpretation of the conscious consumer, and really seeking to understand the full breadth of people to whom these issues matter deeply.
We wanted to interrogate this further. So in partnership with the Diversity Standards Collective, and as part of our mission to transform taboo topics into fluid conversation through our ‘Spill the D’ program, we recruited a focus group of twenty people, all of whom sit outside what we surmised as the stereotypical mold of the ‘conscious consumer’.
We found a group who all exhibited conscious buying behavior; who largely expected to buy even more consciously in future; and who weren’t afraid to turn away from brands where they found fault. Their responses crystallized into five key findings, which provide valuable intel for marketers wishing to prosper within the conscious consumption economy.
1) The invisible conscious consumer
The majority of respondents did indeed report their belief in the existence of a stereotypical ‘conscious consumer’, broadly defined as ‘tree-hugging hippies’ or ‘affluent liberals’ (in both cases, primarily white).
Consequently, a majority of the group felt unrepresented and ignored by campaigns from brands that cater to conscious consumers, citing their age, race or religion. The warning is clear: brands must remedy this situation immediately to avoid further alienating a substantial portion of their target market.
“[Conscious consumption brands] often cater to the white western vegan. Which is crazy because they’ve just got conscious within the last minute, whereas working class and racialized communities have had to be conscious forever. Sustainability is our middle name, especially Bengali people,” as shared by an interview from a respondent in the focus group.
2) Four jobs to be done
In terms of room for improvement for brands in the conscious consumption economy, our group’s suggestions clustered into four areas:
Concrete action (more than just promises and pledges): “The actual consequences are the only important thing to me, not just statements and values.”
Representation (greater diversity in comms and campaigns): “I don’t see a lot of branding that is sustainable and ethical being marketed towards the Black community.”
Community dialogue (inviting input from underserved groups, to inform and advise): “Investing time in putting out focus groups and questionnaires to speak to us and understand our needs.”
Product development (inspired by the received input): “Although charitable donations are always great, product and packaging modifications are slightly more significant.”
3) Environmental concerns are critical – but vague
Interestingly, despite the media focus placed on brands’ stances on political and societal issues, environmental concerns remained the most influential on our group’s purchase decisions. However, while societal/political concerns tended to be specific and issue-related (supply chain transparency, for example, or support for LGBT+ organizations), environmental concerns tend to be broader and more general, relating to the planet or global warming.
Marketers for whom environmental messaging is key should consider being more specific and focused when communicating their initiatives, which should also help to reduce people’s skepticism about brand ‘greenwashing’; another notable theme from the research.
“It’s not that the other areas aren’t important, it’s just that saving the planet is the most crucial thing for all of us at the moment,” according to an interview from the report.
4) Do good and make amends
A handful of brands earned multiple positive mentions: Lush, The Body Shop, H&M and Lucy & Yak all earned plaudits for their sustainable and socially-responsible behavior.
People were especially favorably disposed towards brands that step up their representation efforts in the face of bigotry, such as Sainsbury’s; and in some cases towards brands that correct and learn from past offences, such as H&M. This latter finding correlates with well-documented research indicating that owning up to one’s shortcomings makes people – and brands – more likeable.
Brands should see this trait as emphasizing the need for acting courageously and accepting that uncertainty is an inevitable part of betterment; imperfect – even turbulent – progress is far better than no progress at all.
“I shop in places that are not afraid to stand up and show their views on diversity. Like Sainsbury’s – after their Christmas advert with the Black family I shopped there more often,” said an anonymized participant in the focus group.
5) Value will close the gap
Even the most conscious consumers sometimes face an internal struggle at the checkout, balancing ethics with ease, and conscience with convenience. A recent GlobeScan survey found that the number one action that people want companies to take to enable sustainable living is to make more affordable products and services; while this remains paramount, our findings also suggest that better communicating products’ value for money (by, for example, talking about cost per use) can help conscious consumers to justify making the ethical choices more often.
“I endeavour to be as conscious as I can be, while accounting for the fact I’m poor, so I can’t always make the most ethical choice in every situation. Sometimes a need for something within my budget outweighs ethics,” according to an interviewed participant.
It’s clear from our research that there’s a lot of work for us to do to make every conscious consumer feel seen, included, represented and provided for; but it’s a moral imperative (not to mention good business) that we must collectively address.
We’ll continue to work closely with the Diversity Standards Collective to do better in the work we make and the environment we create, and we’ll continue to tackle important topics of diversity and representation through our ‘Spill the D’ program: trying to break down the fear and discomfort that surrounds these conversations by emphasizing them as opportunities to learn, and to benefit from a multiplicity of voices and ideas.