2013-11-25

Co.Exist

Creating The Committed Consumer, Social Enterprise’s Next Big Mission

We've all heard a lot about conscious consumerism, but that's not enough. It's time to vote even more powerfully with our wallets.

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)?

Combat Confusion and Complacency

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.

Create Healthy Tension

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.

Cultivate the Early Adopters

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]

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14 Comments

  • Hi Bethany, thank you for the kinds words. And you do make a valid point regarding the caution of using tension/pain/etc. That is for sure a fine line. More than linking to specific products, I was after a heightened tension in general around purchasing decisions. But I totally see your point as that trickles down to specific offerings. I'd love to check out the research you cite as well. Drop us a note at Good.Must.Grow. if you have a chance!

  • Bethany

    Thank you, Heath, this is a great post! I agree with and am excited by the vast majority of it. I just want to express one caution about advising companies to also leverage tension, conflict and pain in their marketing messaging. Research has shown that this doesn't work, it does not sell products. It can be effective when activist groups and 3rd parties point out the pain elements to help motivate consumers to become more committed. But it can backfire on companies who try to do it themselves, since consumers don't want to buy products that just avoid negative attributes, they want products that positively benefit them or those they care about.

  • annmariebland

    Thank you so much for a great perspective on social entrepreneurship. It is interesting to think that although as a social enterprise owner I have been focused on building sustainable business; what I didn't consider was adoption. If the consumer did not keep coming back, had we succeeded? It is like you say, it's great if one "does good" by purchasing a tshirt. But purchasing brands that give back has to be part of the fabric of our lives. THat consumers demand it and companies deliver on it. I'm hopeful that we are building the correct solution to help change behavior. Cross our fingers. All the best, Ann Marie, founder www.thinkdogood.com

  • Good.Must.Grow. (Heath Shackle

    Looks like you guys have a lot of great stuff going on! I'd love to learn more about what you're up to...drop us a line at goodmustgrow.com when you get a chance!

  • Molly Hull

    I work for an advertising agency that focuses on Conscious Consumers, and I love this path you've drawn to "what's next" for those who are already engaged. We just released findings from a study we did with Mintel that shows 70-80% of adult American consumers are in what we call the "Moveable Middle," or those who are motivated to make more conscious decisions but sometimes aren't quite sure what's "right." 10% or so are in the stage that you would call "committed." As Conscious Consumerism becomes more mainstream - the "norm," per se - we're looking to help shepherd consumers along a behavior change continuum that leads to "committed." If you're interested in seeing the study findings, they are available for free here: http://blog.claritycoverdalefu...

  • EcoStarHealth

    Great article and as the owner of a start-up working to deliver Earth-conscious products while minimizing its carbon footprint, you've hit the nail on the head. At the present we are setting a company to deliver human-grade pet food freshly cooked to customers' houses. We have had to make certain choices we are not pleased with because we do not believe we could price our product at a level people would buy, or at least buy enough of to keep us in business. For example, we would prefer to deliver the food in glass containers instead of plastic ones. Yet, I can purchase 3 plastic containers for $2.49, whereas each glass container would be $4.99. May not seem like much of a difference, but when you are pricing things to the penny, it's a huge difference. Our 8-ounces chicken stew is priced at $2.45, and our profit margins are thin because we buy mostly organic ingredients locally sourced when available. Again, we had to make a choice between a pasture-raised chicken, an organic chicken and a non-organic chicken. Difference? $5.99/lb, $2.99/lb and $1.99/lb. HUGE. When we priced the pasture-raised chicken, we would have to sell our 8-ounce chicken stew for close to $5. If you have a small dog you're feeding 8 or 16 ounces a day, probably not an issue. But if you have 70-80 dog you're feeding 7-10 cups a day, that's $50 to $70. Few choose to afford that, even for themselves. Notice that I used the verb "afford" which I did consciously. We seem to have accepted the fact that we have to right to "cheap" food (which is an interesting word in that it denotes both that it's inexpensive and lacks nutrition) so that we can purchase "comfort." That is, BMWs, big screen TVs, large houses, lots of clothes in the closet, etc. Not at all, obviously, but certainly most of us. As you so aptly point out, we make choices everyday and as I often say: "Our power is not at the voting booth, it is at the check-out counter." We do have the cheapest food source in the world, and we pay a very steep price for it both karmically and financially. Should the picker working 10-12 hours a day earn $7/hour (that's if he doesn't get ripped off), be exposed to incessant sexual harassment, have to relieve him/herself in the open field, be exposed to untold number of toxic chemicals, etc. so we can save $0.10 or even $1.00/lb on peaches, tomatoes, etc., while a baseball, football, hockey player, coach, TV/movie "star" makes millions? Should we spend $200 on a pair of running shoes that cost $5 to manufacture under mostly inhuman conditions with processes that pollute our water supply and soil to support a company with a "cool" logo and slogan? You decide... We decide...every day.

  • BBMG

    Great post, Heath! Have you seen BBMG's research on the 2.5 billion Aspirational consumers who unite style, social status and sustainability values? They're well on their way to shifting sustainable consumption from the "right thing to do" to the "cool thing to do." For more info, check out http://ow.ly/ranDi

  • NSNY

    Thank you for writing this article, I completely agree and have been "stump speeching" several of these points for some time. Social enterprise has an enormous opportunity to change the marketplace, but we need to become a market force and band together as other industries do. Only then is our force visible in numbers, and then we have clout to influence. Also agree that there are early adopters - or what I refer to as the "reverse ripple effect" where everyone continually takes a step in as they are influenced, with the early adopters at the center whom spread their influence outward. Those closest to them and already paying SOME attention take a step in, while the next ring out starts paying more attention. Every ring continues moving inward until something becomes the "norm". That's what we're already seeing, and it's exactly what we're (www.zerotosixtycommunications....) aiming to accomplish with our clients and by working within the social enterprise sector as a whole. Only we're using PR and marketing and playing to both the mainstream and niche consumer to make this happen. This is about making social enterprise the mainstream and the "norm", not staying in our niche.