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From fashion to fast food: the myth of sustainable consumption

Educating consumers about their choices isn't enough, writes Professor Giana Eckhardt

A recent cover of Time Magazine asked, ‘How to do more good?’ We tend to assume that the answer is for businesses to encourage consumers to make the ‘right’ choice in the marketplace, whether it is buying more plant-based food or eschewing fast fashion. Yet, responsible consumption is not necessarily the unproblematic solution it might appear to be; well-intentioned ideas can have unintended consequences and putting consumers in the driver’s seat does not always mean we move in the right direction.

In the case of Tom’s Shoes, the company’s ethical aspirations were undermined by their own commercial success as they found that their commitment to donating a pair of shoes to a country in need for every pair of shoes they sold was flooding developing markets with donated shoes and putting local shoemakers out of business. In 2021, the company abandoned the one-to-one model in favour of donating a third of profits to grassroots prosocial organisations.

Asking consumers to drive social change via their consumption choices is referred to as consumer responsibilisation. Yet, what research over the past two decades has consistently shown is that while consumers care about pressing social issues such as climate change and racial justice, their attitudes and beliefs are almost never a driver of their purchasing behaviour (see this book for a summary of why this is).

Ethical alternatives will not succeed if they do not deliver

Consumers are not willing to trade functionality, price or symbolic value for ethical alternatives. They are, however, open to shifting consumption patterns when the ethical alternatives deliver on the particular attribute that drives demand in a particular product category. Beyond Burgers succeeds because it delivers the taste and texture of a ‘real’ burger far better than past alternatives. Meanwhile, the fashion for buying designer handbags second hand has taken off because it now delivers the social standing benefits once associated with a brand new bag.

When ethical alternatives do not deliver the same attributes as the established product, we do not see shifts in consumer behaviour. For example, consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental harm caused by iPhone components, as well as of the working conditions associated with making them, and yet they are not giving up their iPhones.

Where consumers’ real power lies

Educating consumers about social issues and then asking them to address these issues via their consumption may not be the optimal way to push forward the responsible business agenda. Yet that does not mean that consumers do not have a role to play in facilitating responsible business. Consumers can contribute by slowing down and consuming less. This is a message that companies, even those publicly committed to being driven by responsible business, such as Unilever, are slow to advance. Consuming less is more about upending the consumption system. It is about repairing one’s current shoes for example, instead of buying new ones, even if those new shoes contribute profits to social organisations. This is the power of the consumer to drive social change: to not consume.

Giana M. Eckhardt is Professor of Marketing at King’s Business School, King’s College London.

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