Capitalism and the industrial revolution created the world we live in today. Trade for profit has moved millions of people out of extreme poverty; inspired life saving medical breakthroughs and vaccines, and improved farming so we don’t need to be hungry. From that profit, we get an education for our children, opportunities for women to work outside the home, and the freedom to choose how we want to live.
The problem is, this growth has come at the expense of nature. Industry does not pay for externalities like pollution, waste and carbon emissions. The take and waste attitude has destroyed our faith in capitalism. But some businesses are changing how they use natural resources. Why? Because conscious consumers want better products.
What is a conscious consumer?
A conscious consumer is mindful of their purchasing habits. They buy products that are less harmful to themselves and the planet; from companies mindfully reducing waste, pollution, and emissions.
Can conscious consumption change the world? Yes. Slowly. One small act does not change the world, but millions of small acts by millions of people do.
How does conscious consumerism influence the market? Conscious consumption works by influencing what companies sell. It often starts with a small company that sees an opportunity to sell something better than what’s available. Consumers like the product and the small company grows. Eventually, large companies copy, innovate or fold. One change leads to the next. On and on it goes.
Competition changes our habits
Competition changes what we buy and how we buy. When a company makes a better product for less than what you paid in the past, you probably switch to the competition. An example of a small company changing an entire industry is Netflix. Netflix killed Blockbuster by offering a better way to rent movies. Remember the last time you went to Blockbuster? Me neither.
Then there's Coca Cola Company. Soda sales are down in the United States, but Coca Cola is still thriving. Why? Because they’ve changed what they sell and who they sell to. American’s don’t want sugary soda anymore, so now Coca Cola sells water, iced tea, and juice. They sell soda to people with new, disposable income in developing countries according to Motley Fool's "How Coca-Cola Is Thriving Despite Declining Soda Consumption."
Then there’s plastic packaging. As more people become aware of the waste, businesses adjust.
“Pressure to reduce or eliminate plastics from products and packaging has grown significantly. Movements like the UK Plastics pact are really gaining traction, as businesses and industry work towards a more circular approach to protect the environment,” according to Guy Moreve, CMO at Paymentsense, a payment processor in Europe.
Organic food sales increased from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $43.3 billion in 2015, according to the Organic Trade Association. It didn’t happen overnight, but as consumers became more aware of the health effects of pesticides, they bought more organic food.
Today agriculture is continuing to evolve in response to environmental concerns. Enter the next thing in farming; regenerative agriculture. Regenerative farming and grazing may be able to reverse climate change by rebuilding soil and restoring soil biodiversity. Farming continues to evolve just like other consumer products.
The problem for conscious consumers
In the past it was hard to find good, green products. The alternative was to buy nothing at all. Sustainable living became a lifestyle choice for a small niche of people. But slowing climate change and pollution won't work if it's a lifestyle choice you can opt into or out of. The world is moving toward a circular economy and each industry will need to innovate or go under. The conscious consumers and innovators of today are changing sustainable consumption into a new normal rather than a lifestyle choice.
The choices conscious consumers have today are drastically different than they were ten years ago. In 2010 there were no mass-produced electric vehicles on the market. In 2017, 1.1 million EV’s were sold. Today you can buy products on Amazon most people hadn't heard of a decade ago; clean make-up, circular products, and LED light bulbs that are better than halogen lights. Innovative companies saw opportunities to make products that are better, and conscious consumers bought them.
Is consumption bad? No. Mindless consumption wastes natural resources and contributes to climate change, but consumers and capitalism are not the problems. Waste, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions are the problem.
Conscious consumerism influences the market
Back to Coca Cola Company. Eventually, enough people will stop buying plastic water bottles from Coke because they know plastic water bottles are bad for the environment and our health. That doesn't mean Coke will go out of business. Coke is already innovating toward improved recyclability and plant-based bottles. Maybe one day they will sell a flavor pod that uses 90% less packaging. Or they’ll find a way to make it rain iced tea. Who knows what they’ll come up with. And that’s the point to conscious consumerism.
Buy what is good today. It will influence what is better tomorrow. So keep using your reusable bags, buying organic food and switching to LED light bulbs. One day something better will come along, thanks to you.