Unfortunately most consumers don’t fully understand the power they hold over brands, but there is one group of consumers who do. I am going to refer to them as ‘conscious consumers’ and define them in the following way. A conscious consumer is aware their everyday purchase decisions can be a means of bringing about positive change in the world and behave accordingly. I like this definition because it rests on two conditions being met. Conscious consumers don’t just talk the talk, they also walk the walk.
The first condition is a psychological one. Present is an attitude of consciousness in relation to the consumption of goods. The second condition is a behavioral one involving the actual purchase. When both conditions are met a conscious consumer acknowledges that buying a particular product is not only a ‘vote’ for the product itself but a vote for the brand behind it. For the supply chain, for the company’s employees, for the methods of production used, how the brand marketed and advertised itself and anything else connected with getting that product to market. These consumers also acknowledge that consciously avoiding particular products or brands demonstrates their lack of support for similar reasons. A conscious consumer wants the world to be a better place and sees brands as having the potential to align themselves with this desire also.
One of the implications of this definition is that behavioral observation alone cannot denote the occurrence of conscious consumerism. People may buy goods from better behaved brands because they like the products more or because they are easier to obtain, not because they want to improve the state of the world. Likewise attitudinal measures alone can be inaccurate. If asked, consumers may readily agree they act in line with their desire to bring about positive change with their purchases however this may not pan out at the checkout. Such consumers may actively ignore their conscious desires if alternative products turn out to be cheaper, tastier, better packaged or more widely available. Then again, other consumers may be forced to behave out of alignment with their conscious desires whilst operating under certain constraints related to finances or their health for example.
Further complicating matters is that people may behave as conscious consumers in one category but not another. Or that conscious consumption may look different from one person to the next. Or that the same individual may act like a conscious consumer on one occasion but on another similar occasion, may not. Most would agree that brands and products fitting the following examples would be appealing to conscious consumers: Fair trade, organic, locally made, environmentally friendly, socially responsible, animal friendly (including free from animal testing / free range / cruelty free) or free from genetic modification. But conscious consumerism isn't necessarily as clear cut as this. Providing the consumer has considered their purchase and behaved in a way that expressed their desire to do something better for the planet, then they have met the criteria for being a conscious consumer. I love clothes and although I try to behave as consciously as I can in this category, I have been known to set aside these desires for an appealing item. But this never happens to me in the motor vehicle category. When it comes to cars I am 100 per cent committed to acting on my conscious desires. I haven’t owned a motor vehicle for 5 years and if I need a vehicle I rent one or use the car share scheme I am a member of. I wouldn't change my mind even if I was offered a free car. Notwithstanding the purchase price of cars, ownership entails ongoing expenses related to maintenance, registration, insurance, fuel and car parking. Plus it basically sits idle for 23 hours a day being of no use to anyone. For me a car represents a gigantic waste of resources that I choose to consciously avoid. But not everyone is going to feel like I do. Some conscious consumers own hybrid vehicles. Others are satisfied with any kind of vehicle because it provides them with a means to drive to the local market every week for a trailer load of farm fresh fruits and vegetables. Conscious consumption is whatever is meaningful to the individual.
As a side note, some may wonder why I don't use the term ‘ethical consumer’ and how it differs to the ‘conscious consumer’. The problem with determining whether a person has behaved ethically or not is that it involves an element of external judgement, what others (e.g. society) deems as moral. As pointed out earlier, as long as the individual made a considered purchase to bring about a positive change then it is an occurrence of conscious consumption. No one else’s judgement matters. Of course if consumers exhibit signs of faulty reasoning regarding purchases bringing about positive change, then this becomes an opportunity to better educate and inform.
In the past it has been difficult for consumers with conscious attitudes to follow through with the relevant behavior. But all that is changing with the explosion of digital technology and choice in the marketplace. The most exciting time for the conscious consumer movement will be when those who currently hold conscious desires (i.e. those who talk the talk) find it becomes more convenient and price effective to behave in line with their conscious desires. This represents a tipping point where conscious consumerism will shift from being niche to mainstream.