Those of us who are active in the social enterprise space have spent a great deal of time tracking and discussing the emergence of the "conscious consumer." We’ve shared our excitement around a collective awakening, where individuals increasingly are showing preference for socially responsible products and services.
The fact that so many consumers are expressing interest in using commerce to make this world a better a place is absolutely worth celebrating. It is also awesome that in today’s culture it is currently cool to have a conscience and hip to have a big heart.
But for those of us seeking systematic change, we have to be realists. Our economy is built on consumption, not conservation. It’s driven by short-term success, not sustainability. And if we’re not careful, we’ll wake up one day looking at old pictures of people in Warby Parker shades and Toms shoes, reminiscing about that "do good" fashion trend that swept the nation but ultimately met the same fate as MC Hammer pants and Cosby sweaters from the 1980s.
So, while we can stop and briefly commend consumers for having a conscience, we must quickly start pushing them into the next phase. Commitment.
It’s as simple as eggs and bacon. As the old saying goes, "the chicken makes a contribution to breakfast, but the pig makes a commitment." Conscious consumers are aware and awake, but committed consumers are active and engaged.
A conscious consumer says, "I recycle because it’s good for the earth." and follows through on this belief when it involves something simple, like properly disposing of a water bottle. Or when others are watching.
A committed consumer says, "I want to protect the environment." Not only does this person consistently follow through on this mantra, he or she thinks and acts much more holistically in pursuit of his or her beliefs. Instead of placing items in recycling bins, they are more likely concerned with not using unnecessary materials in the first place.
The distinction is important. Conscious consumers force companies to be more conscious. Committed consumers lead to more committed companies. Here’s the difference.
One grocery store chain recently announced that it was placing dietitians in its stores to help customers make healthier choices. If this grocer is so concerned with the health of its shoppers, why doesn’t it also remove unhealthy products from the shelves? Wouldn’t that be a more holistic solution to supporting healthy behaviors? The obvious answer is this. At the end of the day, if customers want to fill shopping carts with Twinkies and cupcakes, the store will still be more than happy to sell them. That’s capitalism 101.
That’s why consumers must begin exerting greater economic pressure if we want to see meaningful change. The more they use their pocketbooks to support socially responsible brands, the more companies will respond. After all, what’s good for business is what’s good for business.
So, how do we take advantage of where we are (consciousness) to get where we need to go (commitment)?
Consumers are bombarded daily by mixed messages and misinformation. Companies are being lauded for their CSR efforts by "third parties" while showing up regularly in the news for questionable practices. Social business models such as "buy one/give one" are being celebrated on one hand, while heavily critiqued on the other. Some organizations are making empty promises through social responsibility campaigns that are thinly veiled marketing at best.
To make matters worse, large scale social issues obviously aren’t fixed overnight. They tend to improve or erode at a glacial pace. This vacuum of feedback and delayed cause and effect don’t sync very well with our innate desire for instant gratification. It can be hard to keep consumers coming back for more when solving the problem seems insurmountable.
Consumers are naturally skeptical, and in an environment where it is hard to discern who is really "doing good" and what will "really make a difference," it is rather easy for people to default into complacent consumerism. We have to find ways to build confidence among consumers in their ability to support causes that count.
To counter these realities, the various credible voices within the social enterprise space need to come together, collaborate, and create visible unity. We need to cross-promote and align around specific terminology and shared goals. And we need to clearly demonstrate the impact of every purchase and maintain momentum by helping everyone understand the big picture and the long-term journey we’re all taking.
Collectively, we can help bring clarity to consumers who want to drive change through commerce.
On the other side of the coin, it’s dangerous to let consumers feel good because they own a graphic T-shirt from a brand that gives back. It’s very easy for individuals to feel satisfied, telling themselves, "Hey, I did some good today. Go me!" We need to nurture a sense of urgency for them to do more. The occasional purchase of a "do good" tee is great, but what we really need is for consumers to approach every purchase with the same mindset of a committed consumer. We need them to understand what’s at stake if socially responsible products and services don’t carry the day.
"Do we have to try and save the world every time we buy something?" I’ve seen this question posed several times lately. And the answer is yes!
From a messaging perspective, social enterprises have been spending a lot of time in warm and fuzzy land. We tend to be positive, upbeat and hopeful. And while there’s nothing wrong with that position, we also need to understand that fueling a movement, changing status quo and driving widespread change requires creating tension. People are motivated both by pleasure and pain. By intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. By comfort and conflict.
We’re attempting to change behavior here, and we can’t be satisfied with momentarily short circuiting a person’s normal purchasing decision.
In every movement, new technology or new product, there is an adoption curve. Early adopters serve as evangelists and ambassadors to fuel the next level of growth until ultimately only laggards are refusing to participate and engage. There is a passionate segment within "conscious consumers" who are already acting like committed consumers. They are avoiding companies who are not socially responsible while increasing the amount of products and services they buy from socially responsible organizations.
We have to nurture this segment and provide them with tools to help them spread the word. We have to make specific requests of them to be ambassadors for business as a force for good. These people have the power to influence and motivate others in their social circles. And if we ask them to use that power, they will. And gladly.
Like all consumer revolutions, we need to approach this one with intentionality. We need to make joining the committed club fun, easy and rewarding. It has to be welcoming as well for the general consumer. We can’t be seen as the skinny jeans crowd or "tree huggers" or as elitists for good. And we have to view consciousness as a battle, not the war. Which means putting strategies together to develop deeper commitment from the rank and file consumer.
We have a great base to build upon. But now that we’ve successfully moved consumers, it’s time to sustain a movement. Less eggs. More bacon.
[Image via Shutterstock]