Article

Davina O'Donoghue
Davina O'Donoghue 11 December 2019

What Exactly Does Ethical Mean When It Comes To Consumption?

The near constantly publicised horror of the effects of mindless consumption and reckless waste is having on our world is penetrating deeply into the consciousness of consumers. It is slowly but surely changing the way we think about our choices.

Now, with every purchase decision we consider – what resources have been used to create this and what waste will be left when I am finished with it? Making ethical choices has never been so complicated! 

What does ‘ethical’ mean when it comes to consumption?

When asked to identify what ‘ethical’ means, our survey participants generated more than 30 tenets. Responses ranged from ‘consume less overall’ through ‘use less plastic’ all the way to understanding the financial actions of a holding company.

While there are many interpretations, many of which potentially compete, all consumers first filter each purchasing decision through their own feelings of empowerment to act, which vary by life-stage.

Gen Z show high levels of commitment to action, making choices that ‘do no or the least harm’.

Millennials, so full of good intent and knowledge find themselves crippled by decision paralysis. They are also in a difficult life stage and their responsibility for dependents overrides other considerations, therefore they base choices on what is best for their household first, followed by how it impacts the wider world.

Gen X-ers are likely to act in the interests of more ethical choices if, as and when they feel they have enough information. However, they lack the skill and inclination to research their choices as thoroughly as Gen Z.

Baby Boomers feel they are already taking sufficient action and express least commitment to ethical choices in purchasing. Instead, this generation’s positive actions are more likely to manifest in local activist ways rather than at the till, with volunteering high for this group.

Where does responsibility lie and what role do brands play?

When making ethical choices, consumers also distinguish between how great a difference individual action can make and where the role of government, corporates and large-scale social change is needed to make change.

As part of our study, consumers identified brands that they felt were successfully operating ethically. These ranged from cosmetic and fashion brands including Lush and The Body Shop, H&M and ASOS, through grocers including Waitrose, Morrisons, Iceland and Whole Foods and coffee shops Starbucks and Pret to media houses Sky and BBC.

While participants described these organisations as ‘not perfect but trying’, the common thread is that each brand is addressing the greatest sin of its category, through initiatives including sustainable sourcing, championing human and animal welfare and minimising waste. All established household brands have successfully communicated their product truths to consumers through mainstream media, cultivating loyalty by helping them to feel part of something bigger.

What will drive consumers?

Restraint: To reduce waste and consume less overall, there will be a greater move towards brands offering: 

  • Subscriptions and volumes for single users
  • Unpackaged and nude goods
  • Self-determining dosing
  • Super potency
  • Replaceable parts

In action – All of clothing brand Patagonia’s campaigns support its environmental views. It's ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign encouraged shoppers to reuse, repair and recycle before buying a new garment to reduce unnecessary purchases.

Cherish: To insulate themselves from harsh world issues and retreat from negativity, consumers will make choices that preserve normality and give pleasure. Feeling the need to treat themselves as respite from the strange new consumer world, this mindset seeks experiences that personally resonate or protect the self. Brands succeeding will adopt:

  • Alchemy for personalisation – mix your own.
  • Brand of ‘me’ through product and pack.
  • Treasured upcycled from clothes to furniture.
  • Multi-purpose product for use across different roles.
  • Functional natural ingredients in medicine, food, cosmetics and household products.
  • Emotive product descriptions that speak to individuals e.g. ‘Kind to humans’, ‘Creature friendly’.

In action – Prose’s custom hair care products are crafted specifically for individuals based on the results of an online consultation. With more than 50 billion possible formulae, the products are designed for specific needs and bottled at the point of purchase to meet exact consumer needs and boasts its clean and responsible beauty credentials.

Connect: Where consumers feel overwhelmed by making the right ethical choices and often don’t know where to start, they seek products and brands that are conceived, grown and produced with the aim ‘to better society’. Manifestations include:

  • Ongoing user participation, which allows feedback and collaboration to refine products and services.
  • Giving people agency – establish an accessible framework or community to empower consumers to serve a cause.
  • Direct to consumer models.
  • Rewarding consumer contribution not just purchase.

In action – U.S. brand Kashi launched Kashi by Kids, an organic cereal range designed in conjunction with inspirational Gen Z leaders, determining what was most important to the demographic to create a winning formula.

The Future

As the term ‘consumer’ becomes an increasingly tainted word and the population moves inexorably towards citizenship in this new marketplace, the value we attribute to brands will make them even more human – citizens like ourselves with the power to evidence good citizenship. 

From a consumer perspective, ‘ethical’ consumption choices will need to be easier to see, to achieve and most critically will need to create an emotional reward for a stricken audience desperate to do right.  All whilst ensuring no compromise on the brand and product promise.

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