Shop Your Values This Holiday Season
It's no secret that it has been a tough few months for businesses, particularly eCommerce businesses - many of whom rapidly scaled in 2020 and 2021 in response to the dramatic spike in online shopping due to COVID measures.
That spike is behind us, leaving many eCommerce businesses with excessive inventory, staff, and equipment. Moreover, with current inflation levels driving up costs, especially for smaller brands, and low consumer confidence levels, companies are - understandably - nervous. The business headlines focus on the forecasts of stock prices at Target, Best Buy, and Amazon. However, I (and likely, most of you readers) care about how these trends will impact the independently owned D2C and retail brands that have rooted their entire business model on sustainability, values, and ethics.
These are the businesses whose future we at EcoEnclose want to support and preserve, as we believe these brands are the ones best positioned to create the future we want to live in - a future rooted in circularity, ethics, and a balanced commitment to people, profit and planet.
These businesses often don't have deep cash reserves or external funding to help weather downturns. The fact that they don't have these reserves or external funding should - in some ways - be celebrated! It means these brands are balancing profitability with thoughtfulness in how they treat and pay their employees and supply chain partners and do so in a way that doesn't overcharge customers. In addition, their lack of external funding may mean they are better positioned to maintain their values rather than bending to the interests of investors and shareholders.
However, these qualities also put them at risk in the next several months. With that in mind, #ShoppingYourValues is even more critical than ever right now.
But what does it even mean to shop your values? Does it make a difference? Is it even the right thing to do?
And if you've bought in, what is the best way to go about shopping consciously?
Read on for our thoughts and tips.
Conscious Consumption and Voting With Your Dollars
The concept of a "conscious consumer" is, oddly to us, quite controversial.
"Voting With Your Dollars" or "Shopping Your Values" are phrases that have come to mean that consumers can help shift business practices. They do this by spending with values-aligned brands and curbing their spending away from companies whose practices they don't support. If you don't like how Amazon treats its workers, stop shopping with Amazon. Stop spending with Uline if you don't align with their politics. And (perhaps more importantly) if you find brands whose practices, transparency, and commitments resonate with you, shop with them, stay loyal and patient with them, and promote them to your community.
People oppose these practices for a variety of reasons.
Some very vocal opponents believe it promotes individualism over corporate action, puts the onus and guilt on consumers, and allows brands to wash their hands of any responsibility to make a change.
Others oppose the prevalence of "cancel culture," which punishes people and companies quickly, often with little evidence or bigger picture context. Many activists see it as a "too conservative" private-sector approach to making a change that doesn't create change. Finally, some believe the practice encourages consumption, which is the opposite of what the environmental movement is trying to achieve.
These arguments miss the point or, in some cases, miscategorize the truth of conscious consumerism.
On the first and most often cited concern, we don't believe changes will only happen through Voting With Your Dollars. Most people in the environmental movement believe that change will require a close interplay between government policy, nonprofit action, corporate action, and individual behavior change. Shopping Your Values is simply one tool to drive the change we want.
The idea that it absolves companies of responsibility doesn't make sense to us. Let's apply the same logic elsewhere. We might say, "it doesn't make sense to be a vegetarian because it absolves the agriculture and food industry from their responsibility of producing meat more consciously." Or we might say, "it doesn't make sense to vote because it means politicians can do whatever they want."
Finally, we recognize how powerful the flip side of the concept is: It doesn't make sense to pressure Company X from making any changes because all market signals they are getting suggest that the public loves what they are doing.
And finally, this approach is far easier to execute regarding retail and holiday shopping. Consumers have quite a bit of control and transparency in these industries versus - for example - energy and natural resource extraction. Buying a shirt from Amazon, Goodwill or prAna is a much more empowering opportunity than determining how to keep your electricity and heat in your home or how to fuel your transportation.
With all of this in mind, we define conscious consumerism to mean that since people spend money far more often than they vote or are politically involved, consumers can influence change more steadily in the long run if they spend in alignment with how they vote, how they protest, and how they donate.
When practiced thoughtfully, we see conscious consumerism including the following:
- Refrain from buying mindlessly. Spend on what you need and on what you and those you are buying for will use. This mindset is an essential component of ethical consumption.
- When you do buy something, look for products and companies that align with your political and ethical values.
- Avoid companies and products that don't align with your worldview. This mindset doesn't mean you have to denounce them publicly. It is more about how money flows and less about public statements.
Among registered voters, 52% see racial inequity, and 42% see climate change as critical issues. Imagine if all of these voters adjusted their spending habits accordingly, making efforts to spend judiciously and with companies genuinely committed to reversing these issues.
Here are six tips to help you be a more conscious consumer this season and long-term.
#1: Embrace Slow(er) Commerce: Plan Ahead to Choose Values over Convenience
One of the hardest things about shopping with independent, progressive brands is that shopping is less convenient and fast than with behemoths.
Amazon is the epitome of convenience. Other companies can't compete with its same-day shipping, one to two-day delivery, and endless choice (not to mention price comparisons and reviews). And this convenience has paid off for Amazon. There are more than 200 million Prime subscribers worldwide. While recent layoffs show that Amazon isn't immune to recessions, it is also clear that Bezos has made good on his 2004 promise to "draw a moat" around his company's customers, controlling access to them so that Amazon becomes the bridge through which our country's eCommerce flows.
That type of power is not isolated to Amazon. For example, target and Walmart now make it easy to buy online and pick up in-store within two hours. And their vast selection means a shopper can conveniently get all of their shopping done in one place, very quickly. But, unfortunately, the competitive advantages of providing low cost and excessive convenience that come with scale are so difficult for small brands who care more about sustainability and quality than lowering the cost to work against.
We encourage shoppers to keep this in mind in the coming season and to consider it a valuable use of time to be more patient with your shopping.
Rather than relying on the convenience of Prime or Target, plan and find time to look for and research brands where you want to shop. Make trips to multiple independent stores in your area, or plan to purchase all of the gifts on your list by early December to give smaller eCommerce brands time to ship them to you before the holidays.
I'm guilty of procrastinating during the holiday season and then relying on 2-day delivery. So, I know getting things done in advance can be challenging. But I've learned from previous experience that if I finish my shopping with online, independent, values-aligned brands by December 2nd, I can (1) not bat an eye when they have 5-10 day lead times before shipping, and (2) feel much more relaxed for the rest of the month.
And yes, finding companies, researching them, and directly paying them takes a lot more time than getting it all on Amazon or walking up and down the aisles of Walmart. But in many ways, that's the point of what we have come to call "slow commerce." So take the time to get to know the companies you are spending with, appreciating the change they are trying to make in the world and likely buying less (but buying better) due to the extra time and care put into the shopping experience.
#2 Peruse Marketplaces, Online, and In-Person
Visit your local holiday fairs and marketplaces, and check out dozens of local shops in one place. You'll often get the bonus of learning about local businesses, feeling those warm and fuzzy holiday vibes, and simply enjoying the company of those in your community.
Suppose in-person shopping isn't for you this year (or you don't have the luxury of a local marketplace around). In that case, so many unique online marketplaces give you this same experience with the benefit of accessing independent companies worldwide.
Etsy is, of course, the leader in this space and is a marketplace and company we love! I often buy a quarter of my gifts from Etsy and have loved almost every interaction with these passionate and talented sellers.
But we'd also encourage you to check out Spoonflower (who we adore), Cratejoy, Storeenvy, and Folksy! Fair warning that you can easily get lost in these marketplaces for hours.
#3 Go Directly to Brands' Websites and Get to Know What They Are All About
Outside of marketplaces, finding independent D2C brands can take time and effort. Luckily there are countless guides out there, such as sustainable gift guides, guides that help you find businesses owned by minorities, women, members of the LBGTQ community, and more.
We recommend you check out our Pinterest Eco Gift Guide, featuring dozens of eco-conscious brands in our EcoAlly community!
Ask friends for their recommendations.
But remember that just because they are D2C doesn't mean their practices align with your values. Of course, consumers can only partially audit a brand of interest! But check out their story, where their materials come from, how they highlight their team, and what issue areas - if any - they support.
#4 Spend on the Circular Economy or Experiences
One way to minimize your ecological impact while still engaging in the holiday season is to gift more circularly by shopping used or seeking out meaningful experiences for your loved ones rather than physical gifts.
Check out your local consignment and thrift stores, or peruse online versions of these, such as Depop, Poshmark, Mercari, Tradesy, and Thredup. eBay is - of course - the original game in this space.
From local food and farm tours to fitness or adventure events to spa and massage days, local (or global) experiences can be incredible gifts that don't result in more materials and waste.
#5 Know that This Isn't All Or Nothing
You don't have to buy everything from an independent, values-aligned shop to be a conscious consumer. You aren't a failure if you forget a last minute gift and need to make a rushed, express purchase from Amazon or Target.
Just like a crash diet doesn't help anyone lose weight and get healthy, conscious consumption is not about eliminating spending with companies that aren't perfect. Mindful consumption is also not about simply avoiding a handful of "bad" things and calling it a day.
Done right, "Slow Commerce" is about changing your relationship with spending - doing less of it when it isn't necessary and allocating a higher and higher percentage of it with brands you want to see at the forefront of our economy.
Know that This Isn't a New Trend
A lot of people think that what we're seeing now is new," says Lawrence Glickman. "But there are a lot of parallels with history." Lawrence Glickman is an American historian at Cornell University and the author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism.
One of the earliest US examples is the Free Produce Movement, led by Quaker abolitionists in the 1840s through the Civil War. This movement was rooted in the boycott of goods made by enslaved people. According to Free Produce advocates, buying these goods was the equivalent of supporting slavery outright. While the Free Produce Movement is not considered to have been wildly successful, it did play an overall role in the abolition of slavery by raising awareness among progressives of the era of how slavery shaped their goods and economy.
The issues are different today, but the strategy is similar same. "Vote with your dollar." Avoid contributing to companies whose values don't align with your own.
Says Glickman, "That fundamental question of, 'No one stands outside of moral problems, that we're all implicated in [them]' — that's the essence of consumer activism."