How Consumption Became a Nightmare and How to Take it Back

Consumption has become a massively complicated issue that many aspiring and conscious consumers grapple with on a regular basis. Many consumers are perplexed by the amount of information that they have to review before purchasing or consuming an item that settles with their conscience. We weigh a variety of factors before purchasing, including chemical composition, fair and safe labor conditions, harmful food ingredients, design quality, the list goes on – we even think about boycott lists before we purchase or consume things now! These days, when we buy something, we don’t only consider think price, or only sustainability credentials. We think about the whole product composition – from where and how it was produced, to what’s in it, to how much energy it took to produce and ship the product, to who it will impact if we buy or consume it, not to mention we usually always consider our brand loyalty or personal brand preference. We even agonize over whether we are "over consuming" (“Do I really need another…?”). Things have gotten so out of control that a fellow co-worker of mine is virtually paralyzed about buying a set of simple white t-shirts.

Consumption has become more complex because brands and consumers are both demanding more transparency. Brands are asking more out of their supply chains, and consumers are asking more from the brands they purchase from. As we collectively shed light on supply chains, we learn more and dig deeper into what’s in the products we buy. Oftentimes, the more information we know about an industry, the more apprehensive we are about purchasing products that serve that industry. For example, to refer back to an earlier example, a few years ago, not many of us knew that the simple white t-shirt could have so many complex components that would make us think twice about purchasing just any given one on the shelf. We’re now learning that the supply chains for this staple product are complicated and disjointed, which has  put a major burden on factory transparency. In addition, consumers are beginning to understand the chemical composition of non-organic cotton, causing us to look for better alternatives.

The good news is that brands and startups are trying to simplify our experience to make it less overwhelming, providing these better alternatives, and importantly, are bringing the pleasure back to conscious consumption.

1) By a longshot, the best way to reduce our impact on the planet is to consume less.

However, consuming nothing is next to impossible. When faced with a choice over what to buy, brands are starting to make innovative, sustainable products that also look and feel great. There are now thousands of products that delight consumers and at their core are sustainable, innovative, beautiful and the glaringly obvious choice. For example, even just a quick glance at the Cradle2Cradle Product Registry reveals products that are high quality, beautiful and made with sustainable, circular design principles. Long gone are the days of sacrificing quality and beauty for sustainability. Now the best products are also the most responsible. Timberland and Thread recently shared examples of the products that they are creating together that fulfill the coveted trifecta: environmentally conscious (based on principles of circularity), socially responsible (empowering women in Haiti) and the outcome being an elegant and beautiful finished product.

2) Given the growing complexity of decisions on what to buy, it’s a relief that some brands and startups are making our decisions simpler.

Donegood, for example, is technology startup that actively guides consumers to choose a “better” option when online shopping. This browser plug-in gently suggests other, more ethical or sustainable options when shopping. Users appreciate the gentle nudge to choose alternative products, and find that it doesn’t add “one more thing” to think about – there’s simply an alternative product if you want it. This comes on top of already existing helpful apps such as GoodGuide, HowGood, Fooducate, Buycott, Sure, Animo and Locavore.

Other brands such as Sustain Natural are using more explanatory, trustworthy and tactical labels, and being upfront and communicative with consumers about what each label means. They are guiding us to make the right decision by communicating why it’s important to trust a third party labeling system in choosing a product that is free of chemicals.

3) Brands are also acting as change agents to improve entire industries, not just their own brand or company.

Times are changing, and brands are now working with each other to elevate our collective needs. In the long run this will make it easier for consumers to choose “good” products and services because it will no longer be about the brand – it will be a general improvement of an entire industry. We’re seeing leading examples of this phenomenon already. When making a decision about which toilet tissue to purchase, consider a recent initiative by Domtar and P&G. These two companies are working together with the goal of certifying all US-forests as Forest Stewardship Certified, helping consumers purchase conscientiously regardless of brand.

Other brands are guiding our choices so that some of the paralysis of consumption is removed through better alternatives. For example, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have created a replica of beef burgers made entirely of plants, reducing the product impact by magnitudes, but also beginning to change the game for the meat industry.

Dozens of other brands have recently come up with compelling ways to simplify consumption decisions and help make consumption norms more sustainable. Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s, L’Oreal, KIND Snacks, Hershey’s, Method, BASF, Google, Apple and IBM are just some of those who will share their work in detail at SB’17 Detroit this May 22-25.


Nassy Avramidis, Content Development Manager, Sustainable Brands
March 3, 2017

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