The new set of expectations sees brands being forced to readdress every part of their business, from supply chain to production process, the need to be green is prevailing and is now an expected part of a brand’s strategy.

  • As noticed throughout 2019, consumers have been actively pursuing different ways to positively impact the environment and in turn, this has affected their purchasing habits.
  • From this, came the inception of the ‘conscious consumer’. As a collective, they are applying pressure and higher expectations on brands to step up and do more than they have been where sustainability is concerned.
  • Brands that fail to do this risk losing the business of consumers worldwide who see sustainability in brands as a priority.

75% of the UK are consciously modifying their behaviour when it comes to consumer items. Plastic, non-recyclable materials, dairy, meat, sugar and even clothes are among those products we are beginning to reconsider our consumption of.”

Two events stood out when we look back at 2019 and consider what fuelled this cultural upheaval. The students who made a stand to demand action on the climate crisis and the fires in the Amazon rainforest. These events ignited change in the eyes of consumers and as a result, foundations that have been built are now in disarray as they try to adapt to the ethical consumer.

Where did this come from?

46% of UK consumers stated they are actively reducing their plastic usage.”

David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ aired almost ten years ago and since then, we have seen environmental issues soar to the top of consumers’ agenda, brands worldwide have witnessed consumers’ demand to take action and reassess their impact on Mother Earth.

The ‘Attenborough Effect’ brought plastic waste to the forefront of consumer’s minds after the last episode increased plastic recycling by 55% amongst consumers. Therefore, eco-friendly initiatives are the way forward for 2020 with brands like Glastonbury Festival, who banned all single-use plastic, and McDonald’s who switched to paper straws, setting the bar of expectation.

However, the conscious consumer is not limited to sustainability issues, they also want to promote social justice.

A key figure who fought this battle was Britain's Green Queen, Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop who campaigned in animal rights, human rights, fair trade and environmental protection to name a few. She played a revolutionary part in getting cosmetic testing on animals banned in Britain and is a brilliant example of using business for social motivations in a way that could not previously be fathomed.

Similarly, Smirnoff Vodka has recently been trying to provide a voice to those who feel othered or marginalised with their long-term campaign ‘We’re Open’, which supports the LGBTQ+ community. The platform was first launched in 2015 after Smirnoff’s research found that 12% of millennials identified as “transgender or gender non-conforming” with three out of four transgender individuals stating that they had been the victim of a hate crime. Smirnoff recognised a change was needed and since then, they have actively been taking positive steps to support and stand up for these communities, they are working towards real societal change by promoting diversity in Britain’s nightlife.

So what?

It is believed that advertising has the power to create and lead culture, but what is becoming apparent is that it is largely playing catch up, consumers are in fact leading the culture and brands should adapt in response. 

It can be seen in the past year alone that young people like Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish climate activist, has been leading cultural change. Her first solo protest in 2018, when she skipped school to demonstrate outside Swedish parliament buildings, has sparked a movement where tens of thousands of students worldwide have decided to act and participate in regular climate strikes.

It’s disruptive initiatives like this that will prevail this year.

In November, the United Nations climate change summit will be held in Glasgow and will see governments discuss how to move forward in tackling the climate emergency. Scientists have stated that global carbon emissions must be halved by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Furthermore, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that just one in three participants trust most of the brands they buy and use. The industry of advertising and marketing has reached a crossroads whereby advertisers must take action in addressing the climate crisis, but not limit themselves to surface-level responses as this will not be accepted by the conscious consumer. This process will involve a completely new strategy of the industry which, once motivated by selling and selling, will now need to be built through an ethical and conscious eye.

“Every culture has a kind of early adolescent phase before it matures. Now we have a move toward values such as civic duty, responsibility and consideration for the future, not just the present. We risk losing a generation of customers, but if we can thread those values into what we make and the companies we make it for, we’ll rescue the situation. Our business is going to fall off a cliff unless we start listening to people’s demands.” Dylan Williams, chief strategy officer of Droga5 London.

William’s comment indicates that the conscious consumer is no longer considered a niche market. Ethical spending is on the rise in the UK with consumers focusing on second-hand clothing, sustainable food, and green energy to name a few. According to a 2018 report conducted by Ethical Consumer Markets, the UK spent more than £83 billion on ethical goods in 2017 which was up from 3.2% the previous year, with younger people driving this environmental concern.

As mentioned previously, the conscious consumer is not limited to environmental concerns, they are also focused on improving social justice and diversity, with the latter becoming as prominent a buzzword in the industry as authenticity. Despite all the noise surrounding diversity, its tangible progress in the industry is not up to scratch, it must develop further than box-ticking and focus on creating an inclusive work environment so that a new diverse workforce can create content that will truly resonate with all people.

Simply put, brands that continue to conduct business as they have done previously, will not survive the birth and development of the conscious consumer. While this at first might cause alarm, it should instead be taken as an opportunity for brands to do something different and tell new stories that will promote a more accurate truth about their consumers. The advertising industry often preaches that they are forward-thinking, however, by not taking this initial leap and looking to new inspiration and guidance, it will not have the same authority when discussing the creation of new culture.

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