The Future of Sustainable Shopping

On November 2nd, the NYC Fair Trade Coalition and Be Social Change hosted a panel discussion at the Wix Lounge entitled the Future of Sustainable Shopping – How Conscious Consumers Are Transforming the Marketplace. I attended because although I have always supported the idea of sustainability and fair trade and am naturally a minimalist, I have never actually gone so far as to label myself a “sustainable shopper.” I had many questions. What do I have to do to be a “sustainable shopper?” How do I get started? Is it realistically even possible to be a pure sustainable shopper in the context of a materialistic U.S. culture?

The speakers—Alden Wicker, Founder and Editor in Chief of EcoCult, Chrissy Kim, Director of Sales and Marketing at Global Goods Partners, Grant Griglak, Senior Strategist at BBMG, Andy Fyfe, Community Development Manager at B Lab and Alana Salguero, Sustainability Ambassador and Brand Writer at EILEEN FISHER—represented some of the most prominent non-profit and private sector actors driving the conversation around the topic. Marcos Salazar, Co-Founder & Executive Director of Be Social Change, moderated.

The night started off with a simple—yet not so simple—question: what is the definition of a socially conscious consumer? While the definitions the panelists offered centered on the same notions, each answer was a bit nuanced. Grant proffered BBMG’s definition of an Aspirational—someone who loves to shop, wants to consume less, and has a more holistic view of happiness beyond material possessions. As such, they support companies and brands that make a positive difference in society through their products, services, and operations. Alden from EcoCult thought about who reads her blog and suggested that a socially conscious consumer is someone who simply puts a little more thought into how he or she moves in the world. Although it is not always fun to have to think about the social and environmental impact of a purchase, socially conscious consumers feel empowered by making more informed and responsible choices. Alana from EILEEN FISHER added that although socially conscious consumers share the same convictions, they will differ on what aspect of sustainability they will focus on. For example, while some EILEEN FISHER customers pay attention to the materials being used in the brand’s clothing, others will simply choose to buy less and/or participate in the company’s GREEN EILEEN initiative that sells gently worn EILEEN FISHER clothes.

The lack of a definitive definition was reassuring because as the discussion progressed, it became clear just how hard it is to be a pure sustainable shopper! The first obstacle is expense. Paying fair wages, using better quality materials, and using environmentally friendly technology is costly and that cost shows up in the price of sustainable and fair trade products (an excellent documentary entitled True Cost explains the real cost of that inexpensive sweater or shirt hanging in your closet). As such, fair trade and sustainable products are only available to the segment of society that can afford it. This fact left me wondering how the fair trade movement can ever reach full potential when the majority of shoppers simply cannot afford it and most shoppers are not yet willing to have their entire wardrobe only be a handful of clothes, even if that handful is of exceptional quality. After all, Americans are conditioned to want more…and more…and ever more. And hasn’t the fashion industry always told us that the value of fashion is that it can help us express ourselves, reinvent ourselves, have fun, and show different emotions and attitudes? You cannot really do that by mixing and matching a few items in your closet.

In addition to cost, the second challenge that consumers face is a lack of information about products’ social and environmental impact. Global Goods Partners combats this directly on their website. Next to the description of the products is a tab labeled “impact” that explains how the purchase of that product will directly impact the producers of that product. BBMG helps companies create theories of change that consumers can easily understand and relate to. Alden strongly believes in the importance of creating a universal certification for the fashion industry so that customers can compare and benchmark the relative sustainability of products from different brands. She argues that the fair trade movement will not take off until customers have a trusted label that they can refer to when they are in stores making split-second shopping decisions. The Higg Index, a tool that offers a holistic overview of the sustainability performance of a product or company, is the beginning of such an initiative. Right now companies use the index internally, however, there are plans to create a scoring scale that will be able to communicate a product's sustainability impact to consumers.

These significant obstacles beg the question, what will motivate people to become socially conscious consumers? The fact of the matter, the panelists agreed, is that companies still need to have a good product. The sustainability aspect of a product is still just an edge or added value. Alden uses stylish pictures on EcoCult’s website to make sustainable living look attractive and entice customers to want that lifestyle and want to pay the premium for it. Alana, as a brand writer at EILEEN FISHER, stressed the importance of great storytelling and using stories to connect consumers with the people and places behind the sustainably produced products.

One aspect that the panelists did not touch on was how to bring youth into the conversation, especially teens. Although teens do not have the same purchasing power as adults, they will grow into adults with purchasing power. It is during the teenage years that people start to think about fashion and formulate their sensibilities and habits. Thinking long-term, people concerned about sustainable fashion should also consider how clothes are marketed to teens and how teens are taught to think about fashion.

The trend towards sustainability, however, is hopeful! At Global Goods Partners, they see that more brands and bigger companies want to work with smaller producers and artisans. Alden sees a split off in fashion trends between fast fashion and higher quality, heirloom pieces and takes this as a signal that the debate is becoming more defined and skewing more towards sustainability than before. At B Lab they see more companies coming together with a common purpose to become more sustainable. The community of 1,200 Certified B Corps, spanning 37 countries and representing 120 industries, shares one goal: redefine success in business. BBMG sees more companies thinking outside the box. For example, Rent the Runway allows consumers to rent high end clothes as they need them. This allows consumers to satiate the need to have a variety of new looks in a wardrobe while combatting the need for fast and cheap fashion. At EILEEN FISHER they see their customers making the mental connection between fashion and overall wellness for themselves and the planet.

While the obstacles to being a pure sustainable shopper are still very real for me, by the end of the discussion, I felt more conscious of my purchasing power and more inspired to make better purchasing decisions when and where I can. I will consult EcoCult’s website more often, I will take a trip out to Irvington, NY to visit the GREEN EILEEN store, and I will purchase fewer items but ones that can be mixed and matched together to create more outfits. I also felt hopeful that although the success of the fair trade and sustainability movement depends on a huge cultural and philosophical shift in thinking among consumers and businesses, we are already witnessing remarkable and creative initiatives, solutions and commitments.

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