A piece published in the 1972 edition of the Journal of Marketing titled The Socially Conscious Consumer is considered one of the first references to “conscious consumption”. The term, which is much more widely used today, represents a group of consumers who actively seek out ethical and sustainable products that are supposed to be better for the planet and people. But, the question persists: are conscious consumer habits actually impacting change?

Conscious consumption has received some bad press in the last year. It started at the beginning of the pandemic when brands like Everlane and Reformation made headlines for failing to live up to their promised values. Many journalists and activists were quick to point out that shopping from those brands was not making the difference consumers thought it was since the companies had fallen short on their commitments. This argument was supported in October 2020 by Elizabeth L. Cline, who wrote an article for Atmos magazine about her decision to stop being an Ethical Consumer. She said that brands were not being held accountable for their actions, so instead of just shopping from self-described sustainable companies, she would spend her time engaging in activism to force companies to change. Cline spent much of last year working with the PayUp movement to demand brands pay garment workers who had suffered lost wages during the pandemic. The PayUp movement successfully forced several big fashion companies to pay what was owed for canceled orders. The PayUp campaign also made the argument for consumers to focus on making changes to policy rather than trying to hold brands accountable themselves. That argument ties into the belief that it is difficult to get most consumers to come together and agree on changing their habits. 

Luckily, there is no need for a majority of people to engage in conscious consumption. In fact, Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist from Harvard University, found that it only takes about 3.5% of the population to drive change. Now, her study mainly focused on the use of nonviolent protesting to drive political change, but the idea can be mirrored in the business sector, as well. Since the publishing of The Socially Conscious Consumer, the idea of “shopping with our wallets” has grown from a niche idea to a mainstream concept. And tangible changes in business practices are now apparent. Towards the end of 2019, McKinsey & Company surveyed 64 global sourcing executives with a combined buying power of $100 billion. The survey revealed that sustainability and transparency were the top focuses for those executives, even as an ongoing trade war between China and the U.S. was threatening the security of sourcing locations. When the pandemic took over in early 2020, sustainability and transparency increased as priorities among consumers and brands alike. In the future, brands are expected to be even more focused on improving sustainability within their operations. Proof that even a minority of consumers changing their habits can lead to change.

So, there is an argument for and against the use of conscious consumption alone to change the world. What should you do?

Shopping from brands that align with your values is a great way to support companies doing good and entice other companies to change their operations. But, it is also essential to recognize that individual consumer habits go beyond just what you buy and extend to how you interact with the brands you buy from. Shannon Coulter, a digital strategist and co-founder of the Grab Your Wallet movement, says that communicating your desires to a company and giving said companies a chance to be better is how consumer habits can change the world. As shopping evolves, from in-store to digital, from fast fashion to slow fashion, consumers can evolve their interactions as well. 

Can individual consumer habits change the world? Yes, but meaningful change requires consumers and brands to work together. Whether that is through producing and buying more sustainable clothing or protesting for a better world, individuals can use their buying power for good, and brands can join in the fight.

Fox Holt works directly with brands to promote sustainability in fashion. We are dedicated to giving consumers the best option to use their buying power to make the world a better place. Visit our Designers page to shop from Fox Holt supported labels.