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Conscious consumerism has bounced back after a pandemic low

An annual study of socially responsible purchasing saw a big dip during 2021, but the numbers have started to shift.

Conscious consumerism has bounced back after a pandemic low
[Image: wir0man/Getty Images]

My firm has been tracking socially responsible behaviors since 2013, and most years, the data seems to fall in line with our overall expectations based on what we’re seeing in the world around us. But when the data returned from the field this year, I had to check the math multiple times before I believed it.

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At the onset of the pandemic, Americans rallied. Buoyed by the call of #together, neighbors were helping local businesses, and companies were converting their operations in war-time fashion to pump out protective equipment, hand sanitizer, respirators, and more. Consumers were responding in unity with purpose. But as 2020 dragged along, the air was let out of the balloon, and purposeful behaviors dramatically declined. The circumstances of COVID ended up dividing the country on many fronts, and consumers felt drained of energy and resolve to make choices about their purchases. And we saw this in the data: Our firm’s annual Conscious Consumer Spending Index reported a record low to close out 2020.

I had assumed that to regain momentum for socially responsible behaviors among consumers, we would first need to bring Americans back to the center and reestablish some common ground. If conscious consumerism and other “good” behaviors took a nose dive in 2020, surely that trend would continue as we closed out 2021.

But the reality is that at the close of 2021, our Index charted a record-breaking high and an unprecedented 25% jump from the previous year. So, what’s different? What changed? How could I be so wrong?

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For years, we’ve seen a large number of individuals affirm that they were interested in supporting “do good” companies but lacked the necessary information to know which companies fit that description. A silver lining from the pandemic is that it became much easier to identify whether a company is truly purpose driven or mainly motivated by profits.

There is still work to do in this area, as illustrated by the fact that Americans once again ranked Amazon and Walmart as the top socially responsible companies in this year’s study. This is based on asking consumers to name, with unaided recall, a socially responsible organization. But consumers are now more willing and more active in their pursuit of purposeful brands to support—though they clearly need more education to correctly identify them.

While the companies they name may vary, our respondents are all raising their expectations of what they are demanding from the companies they buy from: 83% of respondents said that how a company treated its employees during the pandemic will be an important factor when determining whether to support that company in the future, up from 72% in 2020.

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Meanwhile, 72% of respondents said a company’s purpose or mission is important to earn their support moving forward, an increase from 63% in 2020. Being trustworthy as a factor in picking companies jumped from 74% in 2020 to 84% in 2021, while the ability for a company to demonstrate a positive impact on society and the environment climbed from 67% to 76%.

If this trend continues, you would anticipate that consumers will become more discerning and exacting when evaluating which brands are actually purposeful. That should lead to more pressure on the companies that want to be seen as socially responsible to take real action—and not being able to sway consumers with massive advertising budgets and ubiquitous brand recognition.


Heath Shackleford is the founder of Good.Must.Grow.

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