Why Consumers, More and More, Are Looking for 'Guilt-Free' Shopping

jen-vereker-author.jpg  Communications Director, Thomson Reuters Foundation.

  WWS contributor


People are making choices that if they’re going to spend something then why not spend and make a difference.


Menstrual cups or wormeries may not top everyone’s Christmas wish lists but with the rising tide of anti-consumerism, ethical businesses are hoping to boost sales this year.

Nearly two-thirds of consumers globally prefer to buy from companies that reflect their personal values, according to research firm Accenture.

Social enterprises – or businesses set up to tackle environmental or social problems such as homelessness or waste – see this as an opportunity to cash in at this time of year.

“Any social product is removing the guilt from purchase, which is really the big problem of consumerism – that guilty feeling,” Dave Linton, founder of luggage social enterprise Madlug, told the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

Based in Armagh, Northern Ireland, the business was founded in 2015 to give bags to children in the care system bags to move their belongings between homes rather than using bin bags.

Madlug operates a buy-one-give-one model, with a piece of luggage given to a child or homeless person with every purchase.

“People are making choices, more and more, that if they’re going to spend something then why not spend and make a difference,” he said.

Whether it is renting Christmas trees, making decorations at home, buying experiences over objects, or choosing to forgo gifts altogether, attitudes towards gifts are shifting.

Almost a third of British consumers said they bought presents with lower environmental impact last year, while 38% said they thought it was important to buy ethically-sourced gifts, according to data from consumer research company Mintel.

About two thirds of consumers felt it was the retailers’ responsibility to promote gifts with less waste.



Less Waste


“As people are becoming more aware of the toll mass consumerism can have on the environment, there is a push toward adopting less wasteful Christmas habits,” Chana Baram, senior retail analyst at Mintel.

“Even though, for the most part, people will continue to partake in holiday purchasing, it is important for retailers and brands to encourage more ethical consumption.”

For retailers whose business models are based on selling as much stock as possible and creating desire through marketing, this change in attitudes can present a challenge.

Many retailers rely heavily on November and December for sales, but increasing numbers are latching onto the changing consumer sentiment and including environmental or social messages in marketing.

U.S.-outdoor apparel brand, Patagonia, which is a certified ethical company, famously placed an advert in the New York Times in 2011 telling people not to buy one of its jackets on Black Friday, a day of heavy discounting in late November.

This year hundreds of retailers took a similar stance, with a Green Friday campaign highlighting the environmental implications of mass consumption.

Yet with big retailers now trumpeting their environmental or social credentials with mega marketing budgets, it can be hard for social enterprises to get their messages heard.

Social Enterprise UK, a trade body, partnered with German technology brand SAP to launch a directory for social enterprise gifts this Christmas.

Social Supermarket, an ecommerce site born out of frustration that there was no one place to buy from social enterprises, reported good interest in its ethical hampers.

The hampers, which include items like tea from a company that hires refugees and beer made from waste bread, have accounted for about 70% of sales on the site, which launched about a year ago, according to founder Jamie Palmer.

Palmer said corporate clients were also showing increased interest in ethical businesses, aiming to distinguish themselves by buying gifts that are different and showcase their values.

“Transparency is putting a lot more pressure on companies ... to be more transparent about a whole raft of different of elements in their supply chain, so this pushes these issues right up to the top of the priority list,” he said.

Jen Vereker (@jenvereker) is Communications Director of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which is the corporate foundation of Thomson Reuters, the global news and information services company. She doesn't mince her words.


Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans.