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in-depth article

Conscious consumerism

What it means, why it’s popular and how it’s changing the world

What it means, why it’s popular and how it’s changing the world

The UK is in the middle of a conscious consumer revolution. From positive purchasing to voluntary simplicity, people are increasingly aligning their spending with their values. Money can be a hugely powerful form of democracy if we use it for the collective good.

The things we consume are geared towards meeting our human needs: the food we buy, the social services we use, the clothes we wear and the products that line our shelves and our pockets are all, at root, based on a primitive instinct for survival.

But while once we used only what we needed and repaired the things we broke, today’s society is based on the industrial production of goods and services that fuel a society of excess: we’re creating mountains of unnecessary waste and over-exploiting our planet’s resources. This cycle of unsustainable production and consumption prioritises profits at the expense of people and planet.

Viva la revolutión

Fortunately, we’re now in the middle of a conscious consumer revolution; Dr Alex Hiller and Dr Wendy Chapple from the Responsible and Sustainable Business Lab at the Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University, both see cause for optimism.

‘Reports suggest that markets for ethical products and services are growing’, Alex tells us. ‘The Ethical Consumer Markets Report (2017) values the sales of ethical goods and services at £83.1 billion, a rise of 3.2% on the previous year, with a rise in local shopping and vegetarianism/veganism. However, ‘positive purchasing’ is only part of this story; the ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement, where consumers avoid consumption or pursue more ethical alternatives, is also growing – however this phenomenon is not captured in market statistics.’

Wendy adds that political consumerism, where consumers exert pressure to change ethically objectionable business practices, is also on the rise. ‘Ethical Consumer estimates the value of consumer boycotts to have risen to £2.5 billion’, Wendy explains, ‘which has resulted in some changes in sectors such as the clothing sector with the signing of the Bangladesh Safety Accord.’

ethical spending 1999-2016

Ethical Spending 1999-2016. Source: Ethical Consumer Market Report 2017.

Still, growth is relatively small in relation to the overall market. ‘Consumer surveys suggest many consumers like the idea of purchasing more ethical products’, Wendy tells us, ‘but this has not yet translated into purchasing behaviour, where price and ease of purchase still remain dominant factors.’

Third-party certifiers like Fairtrade and B Corp help us to navigate the various products and brands available, but everyone has their own values – which is why transparency is such a crucial element of consumer choice. As activist and writer Anna Lappé said, ‘Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.’

While freedom of choice is key, some core, common values unite us as a society, regardless of our background or beliefs. Things like looking out for each other, caring for our natural environment and working together to create a positive future are all things we can rally behind as a collective.

Purpose beyond profit

Where we choose to spend, save and invest has a huge impact on our environment and the world around us. For many years now, we’ve had the opportunity to align our values with the food and drink we choose to buy, the transport we take and the energy we consume. The organisations behind the goods and services we select must earn our trust; they need to offer a great product at a good price while working hard to eliminate – or minimise – negative environmental or social impacts. They must have a purpose beyond profit.

‘Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.’

Anna Lappé

But as well as considering where we spend our money, are we also thinking about where we save it? Ethical money choices are starting to take off, bolstered by the launch of the Triodos Current Account in 2017. If you choose an ethical bank your money can be force for good, working towards positive social, cultural and environmental change while it sits in your account.

Triodos is the UK’s leading ethical and sustainable bank, and winner of the 2017 P.E.A (People. Environment. Achievement.) Award for Money. It is also the first bank in the UK to be recognised with a responsible finance kitemark – a ‘Good Egg’ accreditation from the responsible finance organisation Good With Money. Over the last 10 years the bank has grown steadily in the UK by offering a more conscious approach to finance.

According to research from Triodos, six out of 10 of us want to know where our bank lends our money, but three-quarters (75%) are unaware of where it actually ends up.

Triodos Bank Ethical Current AccountFollowing calls for divestment from fossil fuels and the growing realisation that our hard-earned cash might be helping to support anything from the tobacco industry to the arms trade, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a bank that does all its lending out in the open. As part of Triodos Bank’s commitment to 100% transparency, details of all the loans it makes are published on a map on its website, meaning you can see exactly who the bank is lending to. As it happens, many of the organisations that Triodos lends to are also those leading the conscious consumer revolution.

Conscious business

Holt Farm is one of the main farms supplying Yeo Valley in Somerset. Owned by the Mead family, Yeo Valley is the UK’s largest organic business, and its product range is one of only a handful that’s successfully made the leap onto mainstream fridge shelves. Despite Yeo Valley’s success, the Meads remain strongly committed to their core values: doing business in a way that’s better for people and planet.

Over the last few years, the Meads have invested even more into the sustainable aspect of the business. It’s their ambition that, through a combination of solar power, biomass and energy-saving devices, Yeo Valley and Holt Farms – its dairy farming sister company – become completely self-sufficient for their energy needs.

In 2013, Triodos Bank financed the installation of a 500kW solar array that occupies one acre of the roof at Holt Farm Dairy. The panels have the potential to generate energy for up to 225 homes.

Investing in renewables at Holt Farm is just the start; helping others see the benefits of incorporating sustainable initiatives is also crucial. The loan from Triodos has helped to establish an educational link between Yeo Valley HQ, Holt Farm and Yeo Valley’s Organic Garden.

In the spirit of transparency, the Meads have an open-door policy that means anyone can gain first-hand experience of how this ethical, family-run business is getting it right.

‘Our long-held ambition of attracting 25,000 visitors a year is creeping closer to reality’, Tim Mead tells us. ‘We’ve changed our mantra to ‘Get on our Land’. 5,000 people will be coming to Valley Fest, a family-friendly festival on the 03-05 August 2018. In addition, 2,000 will attend Yeo Valley pop-up dinners at our HQ, 3,000 will come to our Cooking and Organic Garden Days in the valley and 8,000 will visit the Yeo Valley Organic Garden and Tea Room.’

Yeo Valley’s latest venture is to buy the site at the bottom of Burrington Coombe and begin the process of redevelopment to create a gateway to the Mendip Hills. ‘When this development is finished, we should be able to reset our target and aim for 50,000 visitors a year’, Tim says.

Driving movements

Similarly, a Triodos loan helped food writer and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to renovate a 65-acre organic farm in Devon so he could turn it into his cookery school: River Cottage HQ. The school teaches a wide range of skills including butchery, foraging, fishing and artisan baking. The bank has actively backed Hugh’s latest campaign to encourage people in the UK to adopt a more plant-based diet.

Triodos Bank also works in partnership with organic champion the Soil Association, a pioneer of new food and farming solutions that’s helping to make good food available to everyone. Triodos has had a close working relationship with the Soil Association for over 10 years; as well as providing its banking services, Triodos has also sponsored research projects and reports and helped to communicate the advantages of organic methods to conventional farmers.

‘The relationship with Triodos is a perfect partnership, supporting our work and the work of many of our licensees to achieve growth in the organic market in the UK’, says Finn Cottle, trade consultant for Soil Association Certification. ‘Through its financing, many organic businesses have been able to innovate and develop their ranges to make organic more available and accessible to a wider audience.’

In a further positive sign for the growth of conscious consumerism, the Soil Association’s 2018 Organic Market Report reveals that, after growing 6% in 2017, the UK organic market is currently worth a record £2.2 billion. The market has now had six years of steady growth, with organic accounting for 1.5% of the total UK food and drink market.

People and planet

These organisations are just a handful of the companies underwritten by ethical principles that benefit people and planet. Their success is testament to the fact consumers want more than just products and services, and expect more from the brands that provide them.

Earlier this year, a warning came from an unlikely place within the finance sector. In his annual letter to CEOs, Larry Fink, founder and CEO of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, said that society is ‘demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.’ He added, ‘Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders.’

Major players are starting to see the scale of the shift to a more conscious form of consumerism – but in order to avoid supporting industries, practices and entire systems that contradict our personal values, we must be conscious not only of where we spend our money, but also where we save it.

‘Ten years on from the collapse of Northern Rock and the financial crisis, we are still in need of a financial system that creates a fairer and more equitable society’, says Bevis Watts, managing director at Triodos Bank UK. ‘As a conscious consumer moving your money is one of the simplest and most impactful things you can do. Hopefully more and more people are waking up to the fact that money can be a hugely powerful form of democracy.’

This article first appeared in our spring ’18 issue of MyGreenPod Magazine, The Conscious Revolution, distributed with the Guardian on 04 May 2018.

What do you think of "Conscious consumerism"

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Janine Kilroy 5 months ago

Can’t fault it. A long way to go yet while the ideal remains out of reach of the many who can’t afford the luxury of the right choices.

Lynn Genevieve 5 months ago

Once you access ‘conscious consumerism’ in one area of your life and embrace it, it begins to spill into every part….. The challenge is, I believe, to take a step by step approach as a lifestyle overhaul is inevitable and it is too easy, like diets to make too many changes too quickly and fail. I’m getting there, slowly. The biggest challenge I have is influencing my ‘ comfortable and privileged family’…….