Future Women, December 2018 (link)
With a global guilt prompting us all to create change, consumers are demanding 360-degree transparency. Now brands have to step up or take a hit.
In his 1972 essay ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, moral philosopher Peter Singer argues that luxury is, in a nutshell, immoral. That while poverty and war exist, enjoying privilege, consumerism and comfort when you have the means to help, is an unjust way to live. He simplified this argument further in a 2015 interview, asking why go about your comfortable life and give nothing when others are starving or lacking shelter? “There is something fundamentally wrong with the way we’re living,” he said. “If you’d rather drive a Mercedes than a cheaper vehicle there are implications: you bear some responsibility for having spent money you could have used to save lives.”
As global consciousness rises — with an understanding time is of the essence and every choice has an impact — Singer’s statement is creeping to the forefront of our minds. Living in a digitally-led landscape, governed by clicks, likes and opinions, we’re collectively learning the value of our voices and, in turn, the power of the purse. Simply speaking, if a brand doesn’t resonate or fit in with our core values, the state of the global marketplace ensures there are other options out there. So we find them. This is conscious consumerism in action. The movement has been on the rise for some time as consumers are increasingly clued-in on their own impact, choices, and spend. Soon, it will hit brands harder, as the conscious consumer educates themselves on the global responsibility that comes with making the right decisions. The butterfly effects and weight certain choices bear can no longer be ignored. According to trend forecasting agency Future Laboratory, 94 per cent of consumers say they are more likely to be loyal to a brand that offers full transparency. Another study looking at global corporate social responsibility (CSR) found that nine out of 10 consumers now expect companies to do more than simply turn a profit. Eighty four percent of those consumers will seek out responsible products where possible, which is most true when it comes to food and groceries.
Brands that don’t highlight their sustainability credentials or try to fake it – also known as “greenwashing” – risk losing out on huge scale. “In the past, what we’ve seen is a lot of sustainable campaigns that were quite surface level,” says Future Laboratory’s Foresight Editor Ruth Marshall-Johnson. “There was a lot of lip service being paid to this idea of sustainability. Sometimes it didn’t go far enough and it certainly hadn’t been built into the life cycle of a product.” Think fashion brands that boasted organic cotton, but ignored the water usage of their mills and safety of their workers. A “green” beauty brand that bragged biodegradable ingredients, but didn’t consider the carbon footprint in sourcing them. Bikini brands using bamboo fabric for its fast-growing, naturally pest resistant and “sustainable” properties. Yet failing to mention the huge impact the fabric extraction process can have on the environment and often, workers — particularly in China mills. “What we’re starting to see is more companies looking at ensuring the whole process of making a product and getting it to the consumer is sustainable,” says Marshall-Johnson. “That’s what’s changing now.”
Luxury hotels like Six Senses and 1 Hotels now consider the toiletries on offer, in-room dining menu sources, energy consumption and impact right down to the materials used in the building. Fashion conglomerates LVMH and Kering have adopted newly formed sustainability strategies. L’Oreal has its ambitious “zero deforestation” policy in its supply chain. Even Audi’s made a bold foray into carbon-neutral car manufacturing with its first all-electric SUV. The luxury industry on a whole is thinking green, and not the washing kind. Interestingly, the luxury industry is for the first time thinking smaller — a movement we’ll soon begin to see in the coming years. “People are also starting to say, ‘You know what? Actually it takes more resources to bring you this product than it does to do half an organic thing,’” says Marshall-Johnson. “Whatever the example might be. We’re seeing things like scale get a lot smaller. Instead of having a global organic product in a retail store we’re seeing smaller, batch, collections. Things that take less energy to produce or that are locally designed and made.”
While it’s assumed this consciousness is Millennial-driven, as studies show three out of four are willing to pay extra for sustainable options — compared to 51 per cent of baby boomers — consider that Millennials are also under 35, and still too young to make change happen en mass. “It really is down to the leaders of businesses,” says Marshall-Johnson, particularly when it comes to the well-educated, moral-conscious, wealthy, elite. “Those older parts of our demographics are the ones in the position of authority and influence to make change happen. I think it is a total cross-generational responsibility. So the action that we’re seeing is coming from all parts of society.”
It’s not just sustainability on the global mind either. Many brands are looking beyond the forest, to human rights issues, social impact and even getting political. Fair-trade beauty brand LXMI uses non-profit collectives for its supply chain and pays local farmers in Uganda — where its ingredients are sourced — a dignified wage. Social enterprises, like Melbourne’s The Social Studio and Sydney’s The Social Outfit, give newly settled immigrants and refugees the training, confidence and experience they need to get a leg-up within the Australian textile and fashion industry. They have since collaborated with Romance Was Born, Linda Jackson, Bianca Spender, Ken Done, Eloise Rapp and many more on prints. And outdoor adventure brand Patagonia last year announced it was suing the Trump administration for removing the protections on two million acres of public land in Utah. While this appears on the surface to be an environmental issue, Patagonia is unapologetic when admitting they are protecting their adventure-seeking customer base, and that is, in fact, a humanitarian issue.
Beyond what the public sees, are companies starting to shape culture from within by offering feel-good ways to get their employees involved and cause a trickle down effect. Jurlique, for example, has a national tree planting day in the Adelaide Hills where it encourages employees to give back to the local landscape. And that aforementioned Audi Brussels plant has even factored in the carbon footprint left by its employees’ company cars, and offset that with other sustainable techniques. “We’re seeing brands look at the things that actually support the end product,” says Marshall-Johnson. “That’s the thing that’s really changing. We can have a beautiful thing, but what are the other components that go around it? It’s much more of an inclusive story. Much more a pertinent story.” The problem here, she adds, is that your favourite brand might do all this, it’s just not well communicated – so research is key. “I think something big business brands find really difficult, still, is communicating what they’re doing, but if you scratch under the surface, the majority of brands these days have a sustainable program. They have a cultural diversity program. They have local and investment programs. The majority of people are really investing in it and doing it and getting their hands dirty. It’s happening, we just might not necessarily see it in such a transparent way.” And for those brands still sitting on the fence? Be prepared to take a hit.
Five ways to become a conscious consumer
Shop online or with intent to buy
According to a study by Chalmers University of Technology, 22 per cent of the environmental impact of buying fashion lands under “consumer transport”, making your shopping expeditions to peruse or try on a thousand things now one of the biggest factors in sustainability. This means the more often and further you travel to shop (particularly if you drive), the bigger impact you’re making. ‘Think about how you travel to the clothes shop,” says lead researcher Sandra Roos. “When it comes to impact on the climate, this is the factor that is the easiest to influence, other than buying fewer garments, and one that has a substantial effect. Since many shopping trips are taken by car, consumer travel accounts for a large share of the climate load during the clothing life cycle.”
Hit the app store
There are several apps that will help you make more informed choices and create your own awareness.
Good On You: An ethical shopping app looks at the 360-degree impact of a brand across environment, ethics, animals and social impact.
Oroeco: A fun climate-impact awareness app that lets you track your carbon footprint, helps inform the actions you can take to reduce pollution and rewards carbon heroes.
Sustainable Development Goals: The SDG is a social app that acts as a to-do list for global actions. Users can scroll actions being created in their area or online. The app details the global targets of each goal and explains facts, figures, why action is needed, and what you can do to help.
Build a tool kit
Arming yourself with products towards a waste-free household is one of the smartest and easiest ways to reduce your footprint. Stores like Biome and The Source Bulk Foods are good places to start.
Do your research
It might seem like a Captain Obvious suggestion here, but if you shop somewhere often, look into what programs they have set up to support the planet. It might surprise you how committed your favourite stores or brands are (or aren’t). For example, Sephora, the Kering Group (Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent etc), David Jones, Tiffany & Co. and L’Oreal all have sustainability goals, programs and communications. Some even have foundations that consumers can get involved with as well. And if they don’t, make noise. The biggest driver of ethical decisions being made by brands right now is the consumer.