You’ve heard the phrase, “Vote with your wallet.” Well the votes are in. Ethical consumers are putting their money where their values are. This quiet revolution based on information and idealism is changing the marketplace. Chances are good that you are one of those consumers. Do you prefer to dine on organic foods? Do you choose sweatshop-free clothing? Do you search out sustainable building supplies? Those choices are probably based on your awareness of today’s health, environmental and justice issues. You care enough to make purchases consistent with your values.
Not long ago you may have had difficulty finding products and services that met your high standards, especially in some areas of the country. But your fellow consumers are also beginning to care and the marketplace has shifted to accommodate this growing consumer base. Really shifted. In 2002, industries serving conscientious buyers got their own nickname– LOHAS, which stands for Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability, based on research by Conscious Media and Natural Marketing Institute. According to analysis posted at www.lohas.com this is a 209 billion dollar market that is growing each year.
That market includes natural foods, integrative health care, alternative energy, eco-tourism, social change philanthropy and more. The motivations of those who support these emerging marketplaces are of interest to businesses, and are described at www.lohas.com “The interconnections between global economies, cultures, environments, and political systems play a large role in the holistic worldview of the typical LOHAS Consumer, but equally important are the interconnections of mind, body and spirit within individuals. This focus on Personal Development, with the ultimate goal of achieving his or her full human potential, is of utmost concern to the LOHAS consumer.”
Concern about the environment has played a part in developing this consumer motivation. For over 20 years, Harris Polls have found a majority of respondents agree that protecting the ecosystem is so important that standards cannot be too high. Recently, ninety percent of those polled say they worry about the environment. A heightened focus on planetary issues leads many individuals to closer inner scrutiny. What values do I exemplify? How can I make a difference? Often the answers direct them toward a more sustainable lifestyle.
Other factors have a similar impact. On-going movements including anti-globalization, animal rights and many different human rights campaigns substantially raise public awareness. Those who support the goals of such movements often seek out information to help them make spending decisions aligned with their ethical stance.
This growing awareness has sparked a powerful consumer market. Approximately 25 percent of adult Americans are considered to be part of this group. Their purchasing decisions are orienting businesses toward more positive social, environmental and humane practices.
When interviewed about the core values underlying their shopping choices, consumers often respond by remarking on the personal responsibility underlying their actions. One business owner said that unthinkingly buying mass produced items is a way of agreeing with oppression across the world. A college student commented that she wants to be a force for good in the world, and is willing to make sacrifices of time or money to do so. A retired teacher noted that as she has become more conscious of her health and spiritual life she has discovered that she also desires to live in greater harmony with creation itself.
The idea that personal consumer choices have a wider impact is easily verified.
*According to the EPA, if every home in America replaced just one standard light bulb with an Energy Star compact florescent light bulb, this alone would save enough energy to light three million homes for a year ($600 million annual energy costs) and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 800,000 cars from the road.
*International products certified as Fair Trade (guaranteeing a non-exploitative relationship between buyer and seller) support the rights of workers in small-scale enterprises. Transfair USA reports that villages benefiting from such income are opening craft cooperatives and health centers. In one area alone, 1,600 acres where poppies and coca once grew for illicit drug trade are now devoted to growing organic coffee.
*Research published by the National Resources Defense Council indicates that 423,900 trees could be saved if every household in the U.S. replaced just one 500-sheet roll of toilet paper with one made of all recycled fibers.
*Purchasing local, in-season produce conserves petroleum. The Organic Consumers Association reports that processed foods travel an average of 3,600 miles in the journey from farm to table. A meal made of locally produced ingredients uses four to 17 times less petroleum than one from typical supermarket products due to transportation requirements.
Sometimes these conscious choices lead to avoidance. Some people boycott certain goods or stores. Others shun spending in specific categories such as owning stock in companies that violate their principles. These consumers prefer to go without rather than spend money in ways that violate their ethics. This takes money away from corporations profiting from factory farming, unfair labor conditions or environmental degradation. Even if the financial impact isn’t apparent to the largest companies, at least right away, these decisions allow individuals to direct their own money with a clear conscience. This avoidance isn’t seen as painful. It’s more an affirmation of personal beliefs.
Avoidance is a small part of the larger picture. Positive choices form the basis of ethical consumerism. People seek out products and services that meet higher standards. Sometimes they rely on their own judgment but oftentimes they research to help them make informed purchases (see resource guide below).
Priorities for ethical consumers tend to interconnect, falling into five broad categories: sustainable economy, personal development, alternative healthcare, environmental concerns and social justice. These issues are the heart of the growing LOHAS market. Seeking authenticity between strongly held values and lifestyle choice is part of a larger cultural trend, according to sociologist Paul H. Ray. He authored the book The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, with co-author psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson. Ray identifies characteristics he attributes to a quarter of the U.S. population which appear among all age, income and ethnic groups regardless of political affiliation. According to his research the people he describes as Cultural Creatives are focused on cultivating an inclusive social conscience and redefining success beyond material standards. Ray says as they are changing their minds they are changing the world around them, even if they are slow to recognize how many others share their values.
These individuals may not be aware of their political or social power, but as a group they have influenced the way products are manufactured and promoted. Not long ago customers purchased products based on catchy advertising jingles like “Silly rabbit, Trix® are for kids!” But savvy consumers want more. When they consider purchasing cereal for their children they want to know not only the healthfulness of the cereal’s ingredients, but where each ingredient was sourced. They may also want to understand the company’s investment, labor and lobbying practices.
Corporations are quickly catching on. Most trumpet their progressive policies on everything from charitable donations to environmental stewardship, although some companies are simply greenwashing harmful policies. The corporate rush to gain favor with consumers by claiming increased social responsibility has caused confusion and backlash. A 2006 study of shoppers in Germany, Britain, France, Spain and the U.S. indicated that nearly half of them held corporate ethics in low regard. There are useful sites to rate larger companies on a range of policies (see resource guide below) helping shoppers make informed decisions despite the hype. Some ethical consumers prefer small businesses, particularly local and conscientious companies. These choices have a beneficial effect on area economy as well.
Ethical shoppers don’t necessarily spend more for products and services that mesh with their values. Often they readjust their attitudes, reformulating what it means to be a consumer. Many have already eliminated unnecessary purchases. They continue to examine the difference between wants and needs in an effort to live less materialistic lifestyles. The rewards include a home with well made, lasting products rather than one cluttered with too many possessions of inferior quality.
Sometimes shoppers do choose to spend more. The five country study cited above showed that a third of respondents agreed that they’d be willing to spend more for products reflecting their values. The wider ramifications are a greater motivator than the expense. Purchasing a chair made by a local craftsman of sustainable wood may cost more but the tradeoff is understood. No rainforest trees were harvested to make that chair, no toxins were released to glue or paint it, no child worker labored to manufacture it.
There is no average ethical consumer, any more than Cultural Creatives fit a demographic. Finding ways to make one’s lifestyle part of the solution is a gradual process. One person may hear about socially responsible investing at college, another may take a Tai Chi class to ease arthritis rather than using a prescription. It’s a matter of seeking authenticity between values and actions—as the adage says, learning to “walk your talk.” The choices are different for each person. There’s no need to scrutinize one another’s decisions because even small changes have an impact.
As the marketplace responds by making values-oriented products and services available, this increases awareness. Others begin to recognize they too can make choices to promote social justice, ecology or health. As a result more and more consumers are voting for the greater good with their spending power. Overall, the approach to purchasing has shifted. A survey of U.S. consumers by marketing agency BBMG ranked what attributes of products appealed most to shoppers. The first two priorities overall remained quality and price, but other attributes considered to be of long-standing appeal by marketers, such as convenience, had dropped significantly. New priorities ranking in third, fourth and fifth place? Where the product was made, how energy efficient was it, and what its health benefits were. This indicates awareness is spreading beyond those 41 million people considered to be socially conscious shoppers.
Ethical consumers are sometimes misrepresented as trying to save the world by shopping. Obviously a great deal more will have to change than purchasing habits. But it is conceivable that everyday spending, reportedly accounting for 70 percent of the 14 trillion dollar U.S. economy, can provide part of the stimulus for change.
While it will require more than market pressure to attain larger goals, acting on one’s beliefs can be personally empowering. For some it’s an expression of spiritual orientation while for others it’s a life philosophy. Ethical consumers envision a better world where workers are paid fairly to generate goods and services that are planet-friendly. And by supporting those products, they help bring that vision closer to reality. Each conscious choice, each locally grown meal put on the table and every handcrafted chair purchased, makes a world of difference.
Crocodyl provides searchable profiles of corporations. This service, offered by CorpWatch.org, is based on extensive information provided by researchers, journalists and non-profit organizations. www.crocodyl.org
Green Living Guides provided by the Natural Resources Defense Council supply tips on topics such as greening your event, protecting your family from mercury, and controlling pests safely. www.nrdc.org/greenliving
Environmental Working Group provides up-to-date reports for conscientious shoppers. Recent ratings included least polluting cars and the safest ingredients in soap. www.ewg.org
Freecycle promotes local offers of goods from those who want to give to those who have a need. Everything is free. This keeps useable items out of landfills and connects people within their communities. www.freecycle.org
Knowmore is a web community sharing information about corporate responsibility with a searchable database for conscious consumers and activists. www.knowmore.org
Organic Consumers Association offers a buying guide directing interested customers to local independent stores and markets. It also links to the extensive search powers of Co-op America’s online National Green Pages. www.organicconsumers.org/btc/BuyingGuide.htm
New American Dream offers detailed resources for making ethical choices, whether convincing one’s company to purchase ecologically sound products or ridding local schools of commercialism. www.newdream.org
The Better World Shopping Guide: Every Dollar Makes a Difference by Ellis Jones
This engaging site, sponsored in part by the World Wildlife Fund, empowers teens to recognize the connections between their purchases and the environment. www.ibuydifferent.org