The Consumer Is Dead. Long Live The Citizen.


Written by Davina O'Donoghue

The near constantly publicised horror created by decades of mindless consumption and reckless waste is penetrating deeply into the consciousness of consumers. It is slowly but surely changing the way we think about our choices, our requirements and even our own mortality.

As the impact of manufacturing practices and food ethics rise to the forefront of consumer thinking, no industry will be spared interrogation and disruption.

That is not to say that consumers don’t feel personally responsible for their own behaviour and choices. A latent and pervasive crisis of conscience accompanies every purchase decision. What resources have been used to create this and what waste will be left when I am finished with it? That is a huge weight of responsibility to contend with and consumers currently do their best to meet their needs whilst trying to minimise this anxiety.

It is a lonely station too. Government and some big businesses are siloed into a villainous category seen as wanting to preserve the status quo and protect the ‘shareholder’ dollar.

This all points to a sustained emotional crisis directing behaviour across all aspects of life. Coping strategies are essential and three clear approaches emerged from our research. These are not typologies but tactical responses that co-exist within individuals and emerge in response to different circumstance. They sign-post needs emerging from this new marketplace economy.

 

Take Action: I will equip myself physically and mentally to make sure my best self is preserved and ready for action. Living in an age where unchecked consumption has truly jeopardised the existence of our species, there is plenty of proof that toxic behaviour, ultimately, kills.

 

 

Retreat: disengage from the crisis and aim to make choices that preserve some normality and sense of pleasure. A pendulum swing towards cosseting the self against a dark age. Occasional, highly permissive behaviour that seeks to alleviate stress and fear.

 


Cope: I will do as much as I can to deal with the threat but within frameworks and a society that are familiar and easily accessed. Executed through moderate and kind behaviours that take account of the changing landscape and the obligation to be more mindful.  This allows the consumer to feel at peace with their choices and stems from a want to continue to feel part of society in-spite of the constant changes around them.

 

What does Ethical mean when it comes to consumption?

The issue of making ethical choices is regarded as consistently important across life-stages but how this is expressed, understood and manifested varies wildly.

When asked to spontaneously identify what ‘ethical’ means to them in the context of consumption, participants spontaneously generated a list of over 30 tenets of ‘ethical’.  There were no discernible patterns by life-stage or generation. Instead, a dizzying array of potentially competing choices and actions.

Decision paralysis is hardly a surprise in light of this panoply of intangible choices. It is evident that consumers first filter their decision making through their own feelings of empowerment to act, which do vary by life-stage.

Gen Z show high levels of commitment to action. Their fundamental credo when choosing brands and products is to look for those who ‘do no or least harm’.

Millennials, so full of good intent and knowledge find themselves crippled by decision paralysis. They have high awareness of the complex choices out there but this is coupled with a deeply taxing life-stage, in which responsibility to dependents overrides most other considerations. They are the most likely to focus on ethical as ‘protect me and mine’. This manifests as choices for the household which represent least toxicity as the benefit extends to both the wider world and those at home.

Gen X are very likely to act in the interests of more ethical choices if, as and when they feel they have enough information, especially at the moment of choosing. Unlike their Gen Z counterparts, they have neither the skills nor the inclination and time to research their choices deeply.

Baby Boomers, the magnets for so much of the blame around our current environmental and financial crises, feel they are already taking sufficient action and express least commitment to ethical choices in purchasing. However, this is a generation whose positive actions are more likely to manifest in local activist ways rather than at the till. Volunteering and in particular environmental volunteering is noticeably high for this group. It is not that they don’t recognise this issue, it is that they address it in different ways.

A further filter through which choices are sifted, is ‘whose responsibility is this?’ There is a clear distinction drawn between the space in which individual action is perceived to make a difference and the space in which government and societal impetus is needed to make change. Where the scale of the problem is vast and overwhelming for the individual there is a very clear demand for government and big business to legislate for change.

“I use a reusable water bottle but why can’t the government force manufacturers to find alternative solutions now? Not in 10 year’s time. Money, that is why”

 

Leading Brands

Participants cited brands whom they felt were successfully operating as ethical and defined this as ‘not perfect but trying’:

There are some unifying characteristics between the brands spontaneously rising to the top of ethical consciousness. They are all very mainstream brands. Excitement and media buzz around the many newcomers and direct to consumer good guys does not appear to have penetrated with an ‘everyman’ audience yet.

Each of these brands addresses the greatest sin of their category, head on and in a very tangible way. What is striking is that actions such as a latte levy or removing plastic bags are not unique to the brands mentioned but in such instances the brands chosen literally have green logos or livery. The need for heuristic and visual reminders of ethical action by brands cannot be underestimated.

These brands have also spun their product truths into uplifting consumer narratives. In doing so they create a sense of membership of a tribe of consumers actively doing good.
Of note is also that these brands are long established, over 20 years, and have delivered much of their ‘story’ through mainstream media and editorial content.

As a first wave of this ‘new movement’ these brands and products have led the way. However, longevity, visibility and big media spend are not available to many others looking to innovate and succeed with increasingly environmentally aware mainstream consumers.

 

Trends

The different emotional and psychological responses to the ethical crisis seen in our research, provide some insight into the trends most likely to help customers resolve their inner tension in the coming years.

The Take Action mindset is likely to drive decision making which is drawn to proof of restraint and ‘less of’. This way of being operates in spaces where unnecessary excess evidently causes harm. From stripped back gym experiences to small batch beer to Lime bikes.

Where the Retreat mindset is in evidence, the need to insulate oneself against the harshness of reality is very apparent. This space sees the valuing, cherishing and rewarding of the self as still a human requirement.

The Coping mindset, is unarguably the most prevalent (who doesn’t feel that they are just about coping in this ferocious new reality?). This ongoing tension is best managed through building new, secure networks and subtly evolved behaviours that create a sense of connection.

 


 

Three emotional hooks driving trends going forwards:

 

 

Restraint

Under this trend heading is a space for managed volume and object permanence. This need responds to:

  • Unpackaged / nude goods
  • Self-determining dosing
  • Subscription
  • Micro dosing
  • Super potency
  • Single household / user
  • Identification of / education on sustainable premium materials
  • Higher price point for longevity claims
  • Replaceable parts
  • Resource disruption/ replacement

 

Cherish

Under the need to cherish and insulate the self, are two fertile spaces for innovation. The first, curation, sets the user free from the learned constraints of a product or service leaving them feeling less vulnerable to the whims of the producer and free to meet their own needs in a rewarding way. This can be expressed as:

  • Alchemy for personalisation
  • Radical or ethical brand / name hooks ups for an authentic POV
  • Multi purpose product for use across different roles
  • Packaging permanence
  • Brand of ‘me’ through product and pack
  • Treasured up-cycled

Meanwhile the possibility of collision for a better life leads us to other fertile territories such as:

  • Skin as a carrier not a barrier – ingredient homogeneity (put on / put in)
  • Functional via natural: e.g. medicines
  • Fast slow actions: chemical essentials moderated by natural support ingredients
  • Language short hands to disrupt behaviour – universally kind product, human friendly, creature kind etc
  • What’s in the freezer? A storage facility for more than food

 

Connect

For consumers, a sense of connection comes from vivid and clear identifiers that a product or brand is in service to its community and not the other way around. Products and brands that are conceived, grown and produced coherently and with a fitting aim ‘to better society’ are sought. No longer a simple transactional model, brands can celebrate that each day more and more people want to insert themselves more deeply into a brand’s efforts to do good. This can look like:

  • Giving people agency – create an accessible framework to enable users to embody and live a brands purpose
  • Web empowerment: voluntary supply chain dismantling and product / ingredient identifiability and constant exploration for better ingredients
  • D2C models
  • Rewarding consumer contribution not just purchase

 


In Review

The speed at which consumers are changing their view of the world is staggering and probably unprecedented in our history. We know too much now and that can lead us to question everything or at times retreat from change or at other moments try to exercise control. Fear and accountability have fundamentally changed our basic consumption behaviours. Brands and products therefore need to review their purpose and roles. They need to ensure that they behave in ways that either allow control, allow the temporary respite from a strange new world or step up to forge connections and community that give us all hope.

As the term consumer becomes an increasingly tainted word and the population moves inexorably towards citizenship in this new marketplace, the value we attribute to brands will make them even more human – citizens like ourselves with the power to evidence good citizenship. Therefore, The Good Life Goals can bridge this gap between what consumers are asking you for, and what you’re delivering. They were shaped through a multi-stakeholder collaboration between Futerra, the , co-led by the governments of Sweden and Japan represented by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), with UN Environment, UNESCO and WBCSD.


Davina.ODonoghue@rdsiresearch.com