Conscious consumer impact, one purchase at a time
The pendulum swinging away from industrialization
In 1961, actress Connie Clausen proclaimed the weight-loss benefits of Coca-Cola in a television ad: She said an entire bottle has fewer calories than half a grapefruit. The taste is so satisfying, it stops her from eating higher-calorie foods. And “it’s a natural, wholesome blending of pure food flavors.”
Now, the accessibility of information online — in purses and pockets, no less — gives consumers the ability to fact-check claims like this in a matter of seconds. A quick search yields results showing Coke’s tendency to slow metabolism, rot teeth and raise one’s risk for diabetes.
This knowledge has contributed to a new movement: conscious consumerism. Gone are the days when marketing and advertising were perhaps the most powerful force behind decision making. Now, consumers have the information they need to research and purchase products and services that benefit their health, the community and the world in which they live.
“We all have access to information and companies can’t rely on marketing ruses anymore,” said Tara Foley. She’s the founder of Follain, a Boston-based shop that features beauty products with organic ingredients. “A lot of people feel like they’ve been lied to for so many years… They want the truth about every step in the process.”
According to a 2012 report from the research firm Nielsen Company, 46 percent of all respondents said they’re willing to spend more money on products and services from socially responsible companies. Additionally, the research found that socially-conscious consumers tend to be young: About 63 percent are under the age of 40.
“[Millennials] have been raised to understand the consequences of their purchases,” said Edna Rienzi, the director of the Beyond Consumerism Program at the Center for the New American Dream. She noted young consumers’ awareness of the impact their purchases have on the environment.
Founded in 1997, The Center for the New American Dream aims to help people reduce consumption — in other words, buying less, and thus creating less waste.
The center doesn’t just preach waste reduction to consumers, Rienzi added. Rather, it provides tools to help people reduce waste, such as SoKind: an alternative gift registry in which users register for non-material gifts, like helping with a wedding task.
“There’s been such a surge in positive psychology findings that indicate that more stuff doesn’t lead to more happiness,” she said. “If people continue to consume at unsustainable rates, the planet’s health suffers at damaging rates.”
In Tim Kasser’s book “The High Price of Materialism,” he discusses his research on materialism and how it affects people. He notes that there are non-traditional ways to be a conscious consumer, such as buying products from companies that treat employees well.
The burden isn’t just on consumers, though. Mark Esposito, Ph.D., has extensively researched the circular economy concept: the idea that economic growth doesn’t necessarily require new resources. For example, Apple offers refurbished products. While many assume a refurbished phone is just a polished up pre-owned device, he said refurbished iPhones are essentially new phones with recycled components, preventing those parts from being wasted.
Regarding the circular economy concept, Esposito said, “Companies have great ideas, but what we don’t find is perfect conversion between what the company is doing and if the consumer is willing to support it.” Oftentimes, “buzz-worthy” influences like documentaries lead people to start educating themselves on what they’re consuming.
The younger generation is frugal, he said — so awareness of purchases comes naturally. Due to copious information online, consumers are increasingly educated on what they’re purchasing — especially millennials.
Follain’s Foley said her stores make it easy for conscious consumers. They can buy from beauty brands that are transparent about their ingredients, selecting products that are better for their health and the environment.
“Saying things are healthy and green when they’re not, it’s silly at this point. Consumers have access to so much information,” said Foley. The idea for the store came from her own online research on healthy, natural and eco-friendly beauty products. “I had no chemistry training. I was just figuring out this information on my own, online.”
She said not all products that claim to be natural make it into their stores. First, they avoid selling products that contain parabens, synthetic fragrance and other harmful chemicals and ingredients. Secondly, they test whether these products do what they claim to do.
Their filtering process goes beyond just the product, though. Follain prefers glass packaging over plastic which, according to Foley, will leech unhealthy components into the product. And according to the nonprofit Recycle Across America, Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.
“Some ingredients may be bad for us, but when it goes into the water, that affects everybody,” she said. “Where would we be without a home to live?”
To Foley, conscious consumerism came from many years of brands’ false advertising, using arbitrary labels like “all natural” when all along, brands were selling products unhealthy for both humans and the environment.
“We’re demanding respect from companies,” she said. “And the time for that is now.”
The essential tool for conscious consumers
Young people today are often dubbed digital natives, widely understood as those raised in the age of the internet, smartphones and other digital technology. For this population, navigating the web isn’t an acquired skill, but practically innate.
The seemingly limitless information available online has helped digital natives define the parameters in which they purchase goods. They search for a nearby farmers market to buy local food; read a beer blog about a new local brewery; or discover the environmental impact of everyday purchases like clothes or beauty products. The tools to knowledge are out there, but perhaps the most relevant is a new twist on an old communication method: word of mouth.
Online reviews, rankings and ratings feature not an expert perspective, but opinions from average citizens spanning the globe. Platforms like Yelp and TripAdvisor have become the younger generation’s vehicle to research everything from coffee shops to doctors, appealing to those desiring to know every detail of every purchase.
This rings particularly true for millennials. According to findings from the research firm Nielsen Company, 42 percent of millennials check at least four resources before making a purchase. Additionally, 40 percent prefer to shop locally, even if it costs more.
Genna Gold is a manager of local business outreach at Yelp, a popular review site with a mission “to connect people with great local businesses.” She described the deeper connection users can make through the site, especially given its range of capabilities like user reviews and result filters. Gold described how she could go to Boston and use specific search terms like “ale house,” “craft beer” or “brewery.”
“I get a list that meets my needs as a consumer. I’m searching in a more targeted way, in any area I want,” she added. “Four out of five Yelp visitors are already looking to make a purchase. People want to buy locally and are ready to decide which business to go to.”
Gold described how consumers have shifted away from traditional advertisements. Before Yelp, she said, consumers would open the phone book or rely on billboards. Now, mobile access to this information has consumers favoring local businesses. A smartphone enables anyone to find exactly what they need, no matter the neighborhood, city or country.
“If I want to find the spiciest tamale, I can do that in a way that would have basically been impossible without online review platforms,” said Michael Luca, a professor at Harvard Business School. He researches consumer and business behavior associated with rating and review platforms. “These sites help you find not only better businesses, but also a better match.”
The power of online reviews depends on the industry, he added. For chain restaurants, there’s barely an effect, since the reputation is so widespread and predictable. But for lesser-known businesses, these sites play a critical role — both for the consumer and the business. Luca’s research has found that, particularly in the restaurant industry, a one-star increase on Yelp leads to a 5 percent to 9 percent increase in revenue.
One of Luca’s articles discusses review fraud on Yelp: when business owners plant positive reviews of their own business, or put negative reviews on competitors’ pages.
It’s important for consumers to know this practice exists, he said, so they can use others’ reviews to their advantage.
“You have to review the reviewer,” Luca said. If there’s a business that has several positive reviews, but the users have only rated that one business, then there’s reason to be suspicious. This is particularly important for what he called “high stakes” purchases. This much scrutiny isn’t necessary for a pint of beer, but certainly is for a cleaner or locksmith, who would handle one’s house keys.
Consumers need to think about the exact transaction they’re doing, Luca said. And with this knowledge, they can make a conscious, educated decision on where they spend their money and find the best fit.
Lauren Winer is 24, lives in San Francisco and calls herself a “foodie.” Yelp has acted almost like a guide for the Lowell, Mass. native. She is new to the Bay Area and uses it to guide her exploration of the city.
“I’ll just take a neighborhood, look up a lunch place that has good ratings or something on the menu that I want to try, and then make a plan,” she said.
Winer uses Yelp to connect to her new home in the North Beach neighborhood and find the places where she could become a regular.
“I’ve used it to find a go-to place for when people visit, instead of just stumbling into a restaurant that looks good just to find out it’s out of my price range,” she said. And for Winer, learning the restaurant’s atmosphere is equally as important, she said.
“Consumers don’t always want the cheapest, they want to find the best,” said Katherine Hutt, director of communications at the Better Business Bureau (BBB). She added that conscious consumers are exactly the kind of people who use the BBB website. “They are quality purchasers… They’re doing their homework.”
Hutt said consumers’ research should be based on what they’re purchasing. If someone is buying an appliance, she suggested that Consumer Reports can tell a customer what to buy, and the BBB guides them on where to buy it.
“That should be anyone’s first step in research: Ask, ‘what sites are important to me?’” she said.
For many, it’s Yelp: As of September 2016, there have been 115 million reviews on Yelp since its inception in 2004.
Considering the popularity of ratings sites, even Yelp’s Gold acknowledged that there’s always room for growth and change. Everyone who works at Yelp is a consumer too, she said, and they’re always thinking of ways consumers can better use the site.
Compared to the past, Gold said that “people were really using what we’re still using now, which is word of mouth. That certainly hasn’t changed.” But was has changed is consumers’ access to that word of mouth.
“We want to nurture the community,” she said. “We want to connect them face to face. Human interaction is essential.”
For conscious consumers, food comes first
On most Saturday mornings, Somerville’s Union Square is transformed into a sea of white-topped tents. Some have L-shaped tables, guiding customers past heaping piles of squash, apples and greens. A tent for Chase Hill Farm displays cheese with creative names like Quabbin Blue and Holey Cow. Meanwhile, a guitarist serenades the customers as they dash around with their canvas tote bags, many with a coffee in hand or dog trailing behind. Up until closing time at 1 p.m., the farmers market bustle barely fades to a lull.
Farmers markets have popped up in Somerville, Boston and beyond, each abundant with visitors ready to shop local vendors. Many consumers are buying fewer industrialized foods, with a newfound desire to purchase thoughtfully: knowing the person, place and story behind the food and its production.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 8,268 U.S. farmers markets in 2014 — a 180 percent increase since 2006.
Mindful food purchasing is a growing concept, but not a new one. Back in 1986, Italian journalist Carlo Petrini was outraged that a McDonald’s opened in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. He gathered protesters to sit outside the restaurant, eat pasta and chant, “We don’t want fast food, we want slow food.”
“There was a widespread concern that there would be a loss of food traditions,” said Julie Shaffer, who serves on the board for Slow Food USA. “So Carlo organized this iconic protest.”
Three years later, the Slow Food movement was born. Now a worldwide organization, Slow Food International aims to “prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat” — a manifesto that aligns with the conscious consumer movement of today.
Shaffer said that during her childhood in Ohio, she only ate strawberries when they were fresh and in season. Now, anyone can get strawberries any time of the year, but they are grown in another state, country or even on a different continent, losing the intimate connection between consumer and source.
How people consume food is just as important, Shaffer said, adding that fast-paced lifestyles cause many to eat standing up or on the move.
“Breaking bread with others is pleasurable,” she said. “It builds community, and it’s good for families. Research shows that kids who have meals with their families do better than kids who don’t.”
Having a connection with food and food suppliers is essential, Shaffer said, especially since a fast-paced lifestyle can be isolating.
Found in both small towns and large cities, farmers markets provide an opportunity for growers to sell directly to consumers, while also giving consumers the opportunity to shop locally on a regular basis. There are 246 registered farmers markets in the state according to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
Relish Management’s MaryCat Chaikin is the manager for the Union Square Farmers Market. Her organization runs several area farmers markets, including one in Watertown and Somerville’s winter market. The one in Union Square was their first, which started in 2008.
Chaikin said these markets fulfill needs beyond just offering local goods and produce.
“It’s a social connection, it’s a neighborhood connection,” Chaikin said. “People want to hear the backstory of what’s going on at the farm.”
Phil Korman is the executive director of the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, which supports farms in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. Korman took on his role in 2008, just as the recession hit. But he believes the economic downturn may have been the reason people started focusing on where their food was coming from.
“Ironically, I think the recession fueled another wave of interest. People had to focus more on home and community,” he said. “No one had the financial resources to gallivant left and right, so maybe they explored cooking a lovely dinner at home instead.”
The Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture has resources for farmers, including the Local Hero program, which provides direct technical assistance or workshops for member farms, retailers, restaurants, and producers.
One participant in the Local Hero program is Mycoterra Farm, based in Westhampton. A regular vendor at the Union Square Farmers Market, Mycoterra attracts customers who browse its unique array of fungi and marvel at the blocks of sawdust with sprouting mushrooms.
“It’s kind of like a Chia pet,” Mycoterra Farm’s Chris Haskell told one shopper. He said that these markets give vendors an opportunity to make connections with and educate those buying their products — even if it means helping patrons grow their own mushrooms.
Mycoterra Farms, just like many other New England producers, is competing with a global marketplace. Haskell said that Massachusetts ate 17.3 million pounds of mushrooms last year, and Mycoterra Farm produced 15,000 pounds. But 85 percent of mushrooms in the U.S. come from China, Haskell said.
“It’s hard for farmers to be competitive in New England because land is so expensive, and there’s less farmland available,” said John Stoddard, co-founder of Higher Ground Farm, which is cultivated on the roof of the Boston Design Center in the warmer months.
Stoddard suspects that, while the increase in consumer knowledge is positive, negative issues like the obesity epidemic and food recalls have people wondering where their food is coming from — and ultimately losing trust in the food industry.
He added that there is still a long way to go, especially in terms of food policy in the United States. Stoddard believes money dominates what we see in the food system and in policy: Food mass-produced elsewhere provides inexpensive options, but that money isn’t staying within the U.S. to help support domestic producers and consumers.
“Can I expect someone who doesn’t have a ton of money to go to a farmers market and buy something they can’t afford? No. But do I think there’s a problem when some people can’t afford healthy food? Yes. So that needs to be addressed,” he added.
When discussing the benefits of buying local, Korman, of the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, said that eating a piece of locally grown fruit feels more real than eating fruit from an unknown location — it provides a connection to the community.
“There’s a focus back on what’s sustainable,” he said. “Real food grown by farmers really roots you to all of it.”
In one sip, there’s a story
In a bright mural inside Barismo’s Kendall Square cafe, vibrant blue and yellow colors recreate animals — both real and imagined — from a coffee farm in the lush hills of Guatemala. There are birds, butterflies, a lion, and a donkey at the bottom. This is one of the ways that Barismo founder Jaime von Schyndel chose to bring the story of his farmers to Barismo customers.
“Farmers shouldn’t be perceived as poor people who need help. Rather, they’re small business owners,” von Schyndel said.
Today, beverage creators — whether they’re making coffee, kombucha or craft beer — are providing conscious consumers with full transparency on who is behind the product, where the ingredients came from and how that product was made.
Many companies like Barismo are taking the extra time and effort to create unique beverages that are practically an art form. But it’s not just the cup of coffee or pint of beer that’s getting all the attention, but the human beings behind the ingredients that make these products possible.
Gustavo Alfaro is the coffee farmer whose land is depicted in the mural. Von Schyndel has worked with him for six years. He said Alfaro is eccentric, but attentive to each individual plot on his farm. On one visit, Alfaro took von Schyndel out to his farm when nothing but the light of the stars lit the plots of coffee plants. Two sleeping beasts with tufted manes were in a riverbed.
“‘That is the Hacienda Santa Rosa lion,’” von Schyndel said, emulating Alfaro’s Spanish accent. Turns out it was a wild donkey — but Alfaro believed otherwise.
Von Schyndel wants to empower his farmers. He said that, as a coffee roaster, “you ask farmers what they’re trying to achieve, tell them what you’re trying to achieve and meet in the middle. You can’t be a bargain hunter if you want to be a curator of quality.”
He is on a mission to empower his customers, too. Barismo regulars know what they’re getting when they enter one of his stores in Arlington or Cambridge. But for von Schyndel, it’s important to educate those who are new. Then the next time they come in, customers know exactly what they’re getting — and what they’re paying for.
While the beverage market adjusts to consumer demands, the beer industry’s changes may be most prominent, as craft beer sales increase and macro-brewery sales decrease. Molson Coors reported that in 2015, it had a 15.7 percent decline in sales. And in an effort to expand its footprint in the craft beer market, Anheuser-Busch InBev bought eight small breweries between 2011 and 2016, according to published reports. The first acquisition was the popular Goose Island Brewery in Chicago.
Peak Organic Brewery in Portland, Maine, appeals to conscious consumers twofold. Not only is it a craft brewery, but its brewers use local, organic ingredients in their beer styles, ranging from saisons to stouts.
Rob Lucente, co-founder of Peak Organic, understands the importance of transparency when it comes to ingredients and production.
“For consumers, the more they become educated on where food is coming from and what the ingredients actually are, it makes people rest easy,” he said. “There are suppliers out there taking interest in where they’re sourcing their ingredients from, so they can produce the most authentic products they can.”
Lucente said that Peak Organic’s roots are in homebrewing with organic ingredients like chocolate malts, Munich malts and even pear juice.
“We were blown away by how delicious everything was. We tried to find something on the market like this, but there was a huge void,” he said. “We saw a good opportunity. We really enjoyed how everything tasted because of these organic ingredients that have unbelievable flavor profiles.”
That flavor is what appeals to beer consumers like Jessica Jordan, 28, of Stoneham. “I like the taste of beer instead of water,” she said. “I usually go for IPAs and hoppy beers.”
She recently visited the restaurant and pub Hugh O’Neills in Malden. Though Jordan likes craft beer, she said that her preferences depend on her mood. That particular night, she and her friends finished a team-challenge at Boda Borg across the street — so she wanted something simple: a Bud Light.
For many companies, including Downeast Cider in East Boston, attaining flavorful beverages is all about the ingredients. The company website states its “firmly established policy of no shortcuts” — no juice from concentrate, no artificial ingredients and as many local ingredients as possible.
For Downeast’s cranberry cider, co-founder Matt Brockman said they previously used a cranberry supplier from New Jersey since most local ones are owned by Ocean Spray. Eventually, Downeast found an independent cranberry supplier in Massachusetts.
“People want to know who’s making the stuff that they’re consuming. They feel better knowing that it’s made locally,” Brockman said. “It’s not coming out of some big faceless organization.”
Rather, Downeast Cider feels a special connection to the local community. The company, which offers tours for those curious about the brewing process, asks visitors not to tip guides, but instead, to donate that money to nearby charities.
That local connection is a familiar feeling for Larry Cusolito, the senior principal of Prospect Hill Beverages. Founded in 1914, the company has produced lines of soda products including root beer and ginger ale. All the bottles are marked with the iconic tower on top of Prospect Hill in Somerville.
The company closed in 1978, and Tower Root Beer — the company’s flagship soda — was taken off the market. Cusolito, the third-generation family member currently running the business, recalls sitting on Salisbury Beach in 2007 with his wife. He was reading a Globe article about Moxie’s return to the soda market.
“I called my sister and said that if they’re coming coming back, there’s definitely a market for Tower Root Beer,” he said. So Prospect Hill Beverages was relaunched.
Cusolito talked about being part of the Boston-area community. “We love being in this part of the country,” he said. “It’s fantastic just to be able to restart somewhere that’s near and dear to our family.”
In recent years, Cusolito said that sales of Tower soda products are increasing, particularly as they add new flavors like cream soda and orange soda.
“It’s interesting when a kid comes up and says, ‘what’s cream soda?’” he said. “A lot of the folks that do remember us are getting up there in age, so it’s almost like we’re introducing it for the first time to younger generations.”
Cusolito thinks there are two reasons why more people are purchasing small batch beverages like his. The first is to support small, regional businesses and the local economy. The other reason is quality.
“The quality of the ingredients and producing it in small batches makes a significant difference… Sodas [that other companies] make today have more high fructose corn syrup as opposed to cane sugar,” he said. “If you take mass-produced orange soda and put it next to mine... the difference is dramatic.”
Newbury Street is often abuzz with a steady pulse of people. Even in the frigid months, crowds of shoppers — made wider by bags at their sides — render a quick walk impossible. Their motivations vary: many may be bargain hunters, while others want to wear the latest trends.
But for conscious consumers — those who target socially and environmentally responsible brands — there’s a growing mindset. Shoppers favor clothing made with organic or recyclable ingredients; created cruelty-free and without animal testing; and produced without forced or child labor. The reasoning may not be front of mind for all fashion consumers, but some businesses and industry leaders are hoping to change that.
Those looking for ethical clothing brands have abundant options. International companies like Everlane preach transparency, going as far as emailing customers about the low price of cashmere this year — and, thus, the lowered price of their cashmere sweaters. Additionally, small boutique shops are popping up on street corners, carrying lesser-known brands that create eco-friendly fashion.
“Most retailers sell clothing like burgers: they perish,” said Tom Cridland, founder of his self-named fashion brand that is known for its “30-year” lines of clothing. These clothes are guaranteed to last three decades, with a pledge to repair or replace a worn-out garment within that timeframe.
Cridland worked with a clothing production team in Italy to produce his brand’s trousers. On a visit, he wanted to see their oldest sweatshirt. They had one created in 1970 that was still in good condition. And from that, the 30-year sweatshirt was born; and since then, he’s applied that concept to pants, jeans and jackets.
He knows it’s not easy to engage consumers in buying sustainable fashion. He said that the average consumer may have financial problems, little spare time and other important life priorities — and thus, little time to think about sustainable purchases.
As a result, he “wanted to create a concept that would engage people really quickly with sustainability,” adding that fast fashion is often the answer to impulse buying. Eventually, he said, fast fashion items fall apart and can look “tacky.”
Stephanie McLean Villano of Newport, R.I., is the fashionista behind My Kind Closet, a blog that highlights eco-friendly and animal-friendly fashion.
McLean Villano believes that it’s easy to become detached from whatever is being purchased. “You can walk down the street, go to the market and whatever you need is there and prepackaged, and you just buy it. But you don’t always think about how it got there,” she said.
McLean Villano said consumers’ preconceived notions often influence what they buy. Marketing and advertisements, for example, have historically communicated that leather is superior to other materials. But she disagrees, noting the negative environmental effects of chemicals, dyes and tannery waste used to create leather.
“There’s the whole humane thing since it comes from an animal, but the broader impact is environmental,” she said. Even fake leather uses polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which Greenpeace calls the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic,” due to its contamination during production, use and even disposal.
There’s a misconception that eco-friendly clothing is hard to find, McLean Villano said — and many consumers may certainly have sticker shock when buying these clothes.
“If you go to a mall where there are fast-fashion stores, obviously you’re going to see the typical clothing you’d expect,” she said. It is more difficult to find eco-friendly clothing since it’s so niche. But nowadays, she said, all you have to do is hop online.
Industry insiders like Cridland and McLean Villano often use the phrase “fast fashion.” An article from the International Journal of Consumer Studies states that fast fashion is linked with inexpensive production and material sourcing, which leads to the consistent availability of new styles for consumers as often as every week.
That same report categorizes fashion consumers into three groups: “Self” consumers, who focus on purchasing for their own needs and wants; “social” consumers, who emphasize the importance of fashion and trends; and “sacrifice” consumers, who aim to reduce their impact on the world.
Boston-area residents have local options for shopping sustainably. Ash & Rose began as an online retailer for ethical, sustainable fashion. But in November 2015, a brick and mortar store opened in the South End.
Co-owner Mary Savoca runs the shop with her mother, Nea, who designs the Ash & Rose Collection sold alongside other brands at their store. Savoca said the clothes they feature are less about trends and what’s “hot,” and more about classic design and longevity.
“A lot of people think sustainable fashion is a homogenous thing, but it’s not,” she added. The styles are just as diverse as non-sustainable clothing options, whether it’s tailored pieces or a more casual, flowing style.
The fabric in sustainable fashion varies, she said, ranging from organic fabric, to innovative new textiles such as those made from recycled plastic bottles. Though the concept sounds odd, Savoca pointed out that one of the most prominent fabrics in clothing is plastic: polyester.
Ultimately, she said, no new clothing has zero environmental consequences, so it’s all about companies making every effort to have less of a negative impact — even if it’s simply producing clothing with environmental energy.
“My job is selling something that people want, but the side benefit is putting something out in the world that’s good for people and the planet,” Savoca said.
Very few people put conscious priorities above their own needs, she added. But even if clothing’s ethical, sustainable side is towards the bottom of reasons to buy, she said that’s ok — it’s at least a step in the right direction.