If you want evidence that consumers are conscious, that socially responsible behaviors are en vogue, that doing good is good for business, you don’t have to look very hard to find it. There is a mountain of evidence that confirms your hypothesis. It’s clear that doing the right thing will attract customers, and employees, to your organization. But it’s also extremely naïve to assume all is as good as good can be.
Over the past six years, my organization has closely tracked trends in social responsibility. As we’ve amassed more data, it has become clear that there are some common misconceptions about the “do good” movement that need to be clarified.
In our most recent Conscious Consumer Spending Index, we reported record lows in the number of Americans who are purchasing socially responsible products and services, practicing “green” behaviors such as recycling/reducing consumption, and being philanthropic by giving time or money to charity.
That’s not an incitement to panic, or an indictment on the sustainability of business as a force for good, but merely an invitation take a moment and examine our blind spots. Here are some solutions for moving forward, and an attempt to debunk current myths concerning conscious consumerism.
Find the Motivation
In 2018, 40% of consumers couldn’t name a socially responsible company. Meanwhile, 29% admitted not doing any homework to determine which companies were socially responsible. Those who did their homework were most likely to rely on product packaging to evaluate whether a company was doing good work. Passing judgment based on marketing copy from the back of a box or label isn’t exactly a CSI-level investigation.
I used to assume people just didn’t know about socially responsible companies. They needed education. But what they lack isn’t education. It’s motivation. We must do a better job showing consumers how small, daily actions can lead to seismic, positive change. The nonprofit behind B Corp Certification is attempting to do just that with its Vote Every Day campaign. This is a great example of the road we should be taking to bridge the enormous gap between those who intend to be more socially responsible and those who follow through with action.
Ignore the demographics
Socially responsible behaviors have little to do with demographics. Those with more income are slightly more likely to be socially responsible. Women are slightly more likely than men to do the same. But overall, the numbers don’t definitively draw lines based on the demographics. Instead, they point to a set of consumers who can’t be labeled, at least not in traditional ways.
Many of us have been guilty of categorizing conscious consumerism as a movement driven by the millennials or some other demographic group. Defining or targeting conscious consumers based on demographic measures, in reality, is not an effective practice. Instead, we have to look at shared values and other non-demographic markers if we want to identify and expand the number of conscious consumers in our country. To offer another reference for this proposition, recent research revealed that a cross-generational cohort of changemakers–not solely millennials–was responsible for reshaping how we work, live, and spend.
We are hardwired to shop for the best deal and to satisfy our inner longings. For generations, we’ve been programmed to consume, and from fast food to fast fashion, we have mastered the practice of instant gratification. The psychology of shopping and consumption is something that runs counter to the social responsibility movement. For too long, we’ve discounted the power of this truth.
The bottom line is that consumers carry deeply embedded behaviors, and it is going to take an ongoing commitment to exchange bad habits for better ones, even when the desire is there to do good.
Year over year, we find that consumers are much more likely to prefer a buy-one-get-one free deal, than a buy-one-give-one to charity deal. This is a simple, compelling piece of data to illustrate the status quo of consumerism and why it must be overcome.
Reduce the Cost of Being Conscious
Obviously, it costs more to produce high-quality, ethically sourced, environmentally friendly products that give back to the community. That hasn’t been an issue, because previous studies have confirmed that consumers will pay more for “do good” products. That being said, there is a limit to how far we can allow prices to climb.
While consumers are willing to pay a premium for socially responsible products, the rub is that the average consumer can’t afford to spend $250 on a handcrafted pair of dress shoes or $65 on a bamboo T-shirt or $20 on a pair of socks. Yet, a growing number of socially conscious products are priced as luxury brands and are out of reach for many Americans. This past year, price emerged as the number one reason Americans aren’t spending more on socially responsible products and services. This was the first time that price held the top spot since the inception of our research.
Don’t Rely on Word of Mouth
For years, I thought that socially responsible products and services were hugely supported by word of mouth. Surely, individuals who purchased goods that did good in the world would aggressively share them with friends and family. Surely, people interested in supporting socially responsible brands would rely on recommendations from people they love and trust. But according to our research, consumers are much more likely to rely on product packaging, personal research, and news reports than family and friends, influencers, and social media. It seems that values-based purchases are much more personal and individualistic than we might expect. And if we are counting on those who are already highly engaged in conscious consumerism to spread the word, we evidently haven’t appropriately equipped them to do so.
To wrap up, the news isn’t all bad, and it isn’t all good. We have an unprecedented movement underway. And, we have work to do. If we are being honest with ourselves, it is clear that we haven’t fully achieved our ultimate objective. And that’s okay, as long as we acknowledge and improve. As a collective, we have to ask ourselves the tough questions, closely examine all assumptions, and continue to critically evaluate what’s working and what’s not. Let’s act with urgency to spur good growth in the year ahead. Our world depends on it.
Heath Shackleford is the founder of Good.Must.Grow., a socially responsible marketing consultancy that helps purpose-driven companies and nonprofit causes succeed. He resides in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons.