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Are consumers finally sick of consuming? Here’s how brands can adapt

What’s a business to do when customers find the concept of acquiring stuff distasteful?

Are consumers finally sick of consuming? Here’s how brands can adapt
[Photo: maytih/iStock, Phiwath Jittamas/iStock, doomu/iStock]

Is it finally happening? After decades of buying more clothes, shoes, books, furniture, sheets, toys, throw pillows, accessories, doodads, and thingamabobs than anyone could possibly need, have consumers gotten tired of consuming? We now produce 100 billion articles of clothing every year, for only eight billion humans. And developed countries are consuming more than their fair share of the world’s resources. Take America, which makes up only 5% of the global population, but consumes a quarter of the world’s energy.

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Ziba, a prominent design firm headquartered in Portland, is in the business of predicting consumer behavior, and it’s now betting that people want to consume less. In a recent report, it helps explain why this is happening and offers solutions for brands whose business models rely on consumers buying more.

[Photo: maytih/iStock, Phiwath Jittamas/iStock, doomu/iStock]

Less is more

Over the past few years, brands have shown that you can encourage consumers to buy less and still thrive. Consider some up-and-coming brands in the fashion industry. Cuyana is in the business of creating high-quality items and encourages consumers to buy “fewer, better things.” Wool& invites customers to wear the same wool dress for weeks or months. Fashion designer Thakoon decided to stop making his highly anticipated high fashion collections to launch a new business designing simple, versatile pieces that women would wear for years. In all these cases, these brands have decided that if consumers are looking for functional, durable clothes, they should design such garments.

Solutions aren’t as elusive as they seem

What can other brands do to adapt to this brave new, anti-consumerist world we’re in? Ziba has three suggestions.

First, be less wasteful in your production and make it easier for consumers to also waste less. Ziba refers to this approach as “subtraction,” which means actively taking things out of the product, rather than constantly trying to add to it. There are many examples on the market today. Rothy’s, for instance, exclusively uses recycled plastic in its products—some of it fished out of the ocean—and its 3D knitting machines ensure no material is left on the factory floor. Grove Collaborative, an online home goods brand, makes toilet paper and paper towels from sustainable bamboo and also plants a tree for every package sold. “Stripped down offerings…relieve consumer friction and anxiety, and reinstill the joy of consumption,” Ziba’s report reads.

Second, if consumers are may be losing interest in buying objects, give them what they really crave: experiences and community. We’ve already seen plenty of this unfold over the past decade, as brands have created immersive retail experiences, from Casper’s nap bar to Glossier’s cafe. Ziba’s advice? Move from one-off moments to rituals. Startups like The Wing, which makes coworking spaces for women, and The Wonder, a kid’s play space in New York, have created businesses out of giving people a beautiful, peaceful respite from everyday life. But Ziba says that brands can also help people create self-care rituals at home. Vitruvi, for instance, makes diffusers that are all about setting the mood at home. Social Studies allows you to create gorgeous dinner parties at home by renting you everything you need for an event, minus the food.

Finally, Ziba says brands should think about how to cultivate new consumer behaviors that are healthy and good for the planet. Companies that have succeeded in doing this include Headspace and Calm, which help people improve their mental health through meditation and better sleep habits. Acorn helps people save money by scooping up small change with every purchase made and then investing it on your behalf. In each of these cases, the brands are invested in helping consumers help themselves. “Habit formation is a universal hook that leads to brand loyalty, market growth, and sustained business opportunities,” the report says.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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