Voters have to wait years to register their opinions at the ballot box, but consumers can vote with their wallets every day. And as ‘Buycotting’ campaigns—from #DeleteUber to the war on plastic straws—become increasingly effective means of activism, more and more consumers are putting their money where there values are.
This rise in so-called conscious consumerism—buying with a mind toward environmentalism, social responsibility and sustainability—is backed by hard numbers: sustainable products make up just 16.6 percent of today’s consumer product goods (CPG) category, but account for half of the category’s growth from 2013-2018. And while Generation Z and millennials are often credited with driving this change in consumer preferences, the demographic cohort is, in all likelihood, much broader and deeper, signifying a cultural shift.
What the numbers make clear: this movement has serious momentum, and retailers have a serious opportunity to appeal to today’s conscious consumer. We took a look at the retailers who are doing just that, and how they’re going about it.
Ambitious, Yet Realistic Goal Setting
It may seem obvious, but for companies to appeal to conscious consumerism, the first step is to work toward achieving a measure of sustainability. Large companies are often like ocean liners in that they take a long time to change course. Because of this, realistic goal setting, with public accountability to help ensure progress, is essential. Institutional change doesn’t happen overnight.
Last year, retail and footwear brand Adidas announced ambitious plans to remove virgin polyester from its supply chain—by 2024. That six year time horizon speaks to the challenges of being the world’s second-largest sportswear brand, with 920 million individual items, each containing about 50 percent first-use polyester. And because recycled polyester is more expensive, there’s also a price discrepancy that will take years to smooth out—a pair of Adidas sneakers, the Ultraboost Uncaged Parley, made entirely from recycled plastics, debuted for around $200 last year.
Fortunately, most retailers looking to become more appealing to conscious consumers don’t have millions of items to account for when adjusting supply chains to meet new sustainable production demands. Change can happen much faster. But Adidas’s very ambitious goal, paired with a realistic timeline, can serve as a valuable lesson for retailers of any size.
Earth Day comes but once a year, and while most retailers with a finger on the pulse of conscious consumerism have a plan to align their brands with the annual observance, the occasion can be much more than an opportunity to score PR points—it’s also a chance to open new avenues for consumer engagement.
The New York Times certainly doesn’t suffer for name recognition, but for Earth Day 2019, it identified an opportunity to promote its digital subscription plans by partnering with the apparel brand Everlane to produce a line of environmentally friendly tees and sweatshirts promoting the Times’s climate-change journalism with the slogan “Truth. It affects us all.”
Everlane has legions of fans who respond to the brand’s ethos of “radical transparency” and its sustainability initiatives, but may not be aware of the Times’s paid journalistic offerings. Similarly, Times readers who aren’t familiar with direct-to-consumer brands might not have a pre-existing relationship with Everlane, making the arrangement a cross-branding win for both parties. The ideal scenario is not hard to imagine or achieve: a longtime Times reader becomes a first-time Everlane shopper, or vice versa—or perhaps both—thanks to one smart, well-timed Earth Day partnership.
The Everlane x New York Times collaboration had one key additional benefit for today’s conscious consumer: for every product sold, nine public school students would receive access to the New York Times through its subscription sponsorship program. Talk about consciousness.
Using Private Label to Show Sustainable Side
Reducing food waste is a major opportunity for grocers where conscious consumerism is concerned. But edibles are only one portion of the overall grocery store food waste equation. Because it’s not just the food on the shelves that contributes to the problem of waste: it’s how those items are packaged, too.
Albertson’s is looking to tackle this problem through the use of its own private-label goods, because when a company controls its supply chain from ideation down to packaging, it can exert more control (and earn 25 to 30 percent more) than when stocking branded products. To that end, Albertsons Open Nature label now includes a line of compostable, eco-friendly products, from coffee pods to paper towels to utensils, which are made using a plant-based material. It’s part of a growing trend of retailers launching eco-friendly private label lines, from Target’s Clean to Amazon’s Presto.
Other private-label-heavy grocery store chains are looking to take it one step further when it comes to sustainability, and the goodwill that it can engender with consumers: Trader Joe’s is promising to do away with plastic packaging, Styrofoam and single-use plastic bags; and Aldi is pledging to make all product packaging conform to reusable, recyclable or compostable standards by 2025. Private label is obviously not a switch that all grocery stores can easily flip. But those with the capacity to produce and stock their own brands are showing an interest in rethinking their own abilities when it comes to reducing packaging-related grocery store food waste.
Get in on the Recycling Game
The buyer-seller relationship usually ends at the point of the original transaction. Once a purchased product has reached the end of its useful life, it’s up to the consumer to choose how best to dispose of it, which is how so many products—including up to 80 percent of all discarded textiles—end up in landfills. But smart retailers are beginning to appeal to conscious consumerism by offering customers options beyond simply throwing away unwanted clothes, or taking dropping them off at the nearest Goodwill or Salvation Army, which already receive more donations than they can handle.
The H&M Group, which also includes brands such as Monki and & Other Stories, accepts used or otherwise unwanted clothing—any brand, any condition—in any of its stores. The payoff: H&M gives donating customers a voucher good for a discount on a future in-store purchase, an incentive that extends the existing customer relationship. In 2018 alone, they collected more than 20,000 tons of textiles for reuse and recycling.
With Eileen Fisher’s Waste No More initiative, any of the label’s clothing items can be returned, regardless of condition, in exchange for a $5 credit per piece. Some of the pieces in like-new condition will be re-sold; others will be converted into original textiles, such as wall hangings and pillows, which can be sold anew.
Fashion labels aren’t the only retailers making it easier for their customers to participate in the recycling game. Apple will offer customers gift cards for certain working electronics, as a means of reusing the environmentally intensive precious metals used in their production; Staples has become a go-to source for ink cartridge recycling, giving customers cash rewards for helping to divert some of the 350 million cartridges that end up in landfills annually; and Best Buy has become a destination for environmentally mindful disposal of hazardous e-waste, such as lithium ion batteries.
Take Care of your Labor Force
Conscious consumerism is about more than supporting companies that source, produce and distribute their products in socially responsible ways. It’s also about supporting retailers that value and empower their workforce. In an age where retail jobs are increasingly imperilled by the changing industry landscape, companies that do well by their workers send a powerful message to consumers.
A story by Groundswell highlights some employers who have been doing well by their employees for years. Outdoor retailer REI offers employees access to an annual profit-sharing plan, which can boost an employee’s base pay by up to 15 percent. Employees are also offered discounts for using public transit, paid days off for volunteer opportunities, and tuition reimbursement.
H&M touts a strong promote-from-within culture and generous paid time off policies, including three weeks of vacation upon hiring for full-time associates. Perks are nice, but generous pay is the best perk of all. Consider Nordstrom, which has a history of paying well above the average hourly salary for retail salespeople. Once sales commissions are factored in, high-performing sales associates can earn well into six figures.
Granted, there’s still a long way to go, as many of the country’s largest retailers are the subject of employee-level organizing through movements such as Rise Up Retail. But these standout examples show that conscious consumers are beginning to have more options when it comes to deciding where to spend their retail dollars.
Key Takes on Appealing to Conscious Consumerism
These retailers and their tactics represent only a small fraction of the opportunity retailers have to carve out brand positions and messaging strategies targeting today’s conscious consumer. Regardless of approach, authenticity is essential: retailers should be prepared to own where they stand and communicate that message with shoppers, from the CEO to the sales associate, through both product and action.
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