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A year of exhaustion has weakened consumers’ resolve to make ethical buying choices

March 29, 2021, 7:12 PM UTC

For some of us, being pandemic-era consumers has been like perpetually looking for something to watch on Netflix: near-endless rumination on our choices, followed by melting into a puddle of indecision, then settling for something easy or familiar.  

For others, it’s been a flashpoint. Moments of social, political, and economic upheaval in the past year have transformed our relationships to consumerism within a society that believes firmly in the idea of voting with your dollar. 

Most of us are somewhere in the middle: compelled to act, but also very tired. 

This dynamic swings through us like a pendulum. We want to make more ethical shopping choices by using our money to support environmental, labor, or social justice practices. We also want an avocado slicer from Amazon and some candy from the dollar store. 

Researchers have long asserted that Americans’ identities are closely linked to how and what they consume. Boycotts, buyins, public condemnations—consumerism is increasingly being used as a lens for socio-economic critique and a way for us to situate ourselves in society. “Consumption is not just a way for us to feed ourselves and sustain ourselves, but also a way to kind of symbolically signal a particular type of identity,” says Markus Giesler, associate professor of marketing at Toronto’s York University and editor at the Journal of Consumer Research

Before the pandemic, people re-examined their consumer values on their own time, depending on what they could afford. Since the start of 2020, the pendulum swing has become much more erratic as we’ve faced COVID-19, a hostile election, major social unrest, and so much uncertainty and exhaustion. 

Giesler suggests these conditions are weakening even the most conscientious consumers’ resolve to consistently make sustainable and ethical buying choices. “As the pandemic went on,” he explains, “we just didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. People got sick and tired and were like, ‘Fuck it, I’m just going back to Walmart.’”

In short, Americans are having a consumer identity crisis.  

A long, difficult journey 

It began with “buy local.” 

In the early lockdown days, headlines around the world warned small businesses were in trouble, and they needed your support. Giesler calls it the “ethicalization of the local”—the idea that supporting community business is a more righteous thing to do than funneling cash into the coffers of big enterprise. In a Groupon poll conducted early in the pandemic, 75% of respondents said they intended to support local merchants once stores reopened. 

“Buy local” is an integer on the spectrum of ethical-sustainable consumerism, a range of buying behaviors that take into consideration factors like products’ or companies’ environmental impacts, labor practices, political affiliations, corporate social responsibility, and affiliation with social causes. Those already attuned to conscious consumerism glommed onto this communal imperative; for others, it was an introduction to economic righteousness.  

Giesler characterizes these consumers as being in and adjacent to the middle class who, through their affiliation with the “buy local” movement became “responsibilizers” of others’ consumer behavior by “policing friends, policing family around what it means to be upright pandemic citizens.”

But working class people and those on far tighter budgets were inspired to change some of their habits, too. Giesler says many he’s spoken with in his field research in a less affluent sector of the greater Toronto area sought to emulate conscious decision-making at stores with accessible price points—if not a signifier of class aspirations, then at least an indication they wanted to be part of the moment, too. 

“This entire pandemic has been an exceptional journey of self-discovery for us as consumers. This kind of us, the marketplace, capitalism, what does it mean to support business, large businesses versus local businesses… all of this has been at stake, if you will,” says Giesler. 

Consumers at odds with themselves

There is anecdotal evidence that some Americans did meaningfully seek out local options, particularly with relation to groceries. Independent farms that sell vegetable baskets under the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model have made on average 2.5 times more sales than the previous year, says Guillermo Payet of LocalHarvest.org, which helps more than 7,600 U.S. farms find customers. 

He says prior to the pandemic CSAs were in gradual decline mainly due to competition from meal kit companies, and that the pandemic has been a lifeline to farms. 

“We like to think this has to do with ‘making ethical choices/supporting family farms,’ but we don’t have any hard data about this being the case. Maybe it is mainly just about getting food without going to the store,” Payet says. 

Or, perhaps worrying about whether the food supply chain would collapse amidst hoarding and scarcity wrought by shipping delays. 

Either way, he wonders if the trend will last once the pandemic ends.  

Amidst all these calls to support local, though, 2020’s Small Business Saturday on Nov. 28 saw only a moderate hop from $19.6 billion in 2019 to $19.8 billion in sales. And while small businesses that successfully adopted e-commerce saw increases in online sales—easy to accomplish if you had little to no e-commerce offering prior to 2020—it did not compensate for lost in-store sales. Amazon, meanwhile, got 38% more business in 2020 than the previous year and took in $100 billion more in net sales over 2019 to hit $386 billion. And Walmart grew its U.S. e-commerce sales by 69%, doubled its overall 2019 gains, and raked in $560 billion. 

It seems there are some disconnects between consumers’ aspirational values, and what’s happening on the ground. 

Consumers are also backtracking on some pre-pandemic habits despite enduring concern for the environment. “We did find that the willingness to bring an empty container for refilling right now is much much lower; like, 35% say they’re less likely during COVID,” says Katie Denis, vice-president of research at Consumer Brands Association (CBA), which represents the consumer packaged goods industry. 

A new report by CBA on its industry’s post-pandemic outlook underlines how the U.S. recycling system has failed to accommodate the growth of single-use plastics and work-from-home residential recycling—meaning environmental imperatives as far as waste disposal is concerned still rest on consumers electing to buy stuff that involves less packaging. That’s tough right now, considering the pandemic has some communities generating more than 50% more residential waste

Empty glass bottles fill an Arlington County recycling bin on April 18, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of Americans to stay home, and alcoholic beverage sales shot up 55% compared to the same time a year ago, according to Nielsen.
OLIVIER DOULIERY—AFP via Getty Images

Denis says she anticipates people will slowly come back to more eco-friendly shopping experiences once COVID has faded from the rearview. “It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that their priorities have shifted away from [the environment] and towards the immediacy of the moment,” she says.  

Still, it’s unknown right now how much of environmental activists’ groundwork has been undone by the pandemic.

Consumers in revolt

In 2020, the killing of George Floyd in May, followed by the surge in Black Lives Matter and police reform protests, was a catalyst for consumer activism. A poll published the week after Floyd’s death noted that 69% of Millennials and Gen Zers thought brands should be involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. Google Trends shows that after Floyd’s death, people in almost every state began furiously googling “Black-owned business”—a sign that even non-Black people wanted to assert their activism and solidarity through their purchasing power.  

Kimberly Smith, founder of Marjani, left, and Amaya Smith, founder of Product Junkie, prepare orders for online customers at the Brown Beauty Co-Op in Washington, D.C. on June 23, 2020. For Black entrepreneurs, calls to Buy Black were a lifeline during a pandemic that has shuttered 41% of Black-owned businesses. Many, however, say that without additional resources like capital and financial assistance, it won’t be easy to convert one-time visitors into repeat shoppers or scale.
Cheriss May—Bloomberg via Getty Images

“I think there is this notion that companies should reflect the values of their consumers, and that’s especially true for Black consumers,” says Cassi Pittman Claytor, the author of the book Black Privilege and the Climo junior professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University. “And those values can translate into various types of political actions, political attitudes, and consumer attitudes and behaviors.”

Pittman Claytor points out that Black communities have for generations supported their own businesses as a form of economic ideology and a way to generate community wealth. Fairweather outsider support—the Google Trends numbers for “Black-owned business” have substantially declined since May—shows how short and fickle even conscious consumers’ attention span can be. 

As Payet noted with CSA farms, many small business entrepreneurs have no way of knowing if shopping trends spurred by rising social awareness will endure, making it difficult to plan their own recoveries. Still, these political flashpoints create spaces for incremental change. Pittman Claytor points to the 15 Percent Pledge, in which companies are being challenged to commit at least that much shelf space to Black suppliers, as a way to extend support for Black-owned business into the future. 

Moving forward, Pittman Claytor says there is also an opportunity to further tie racial justice to environmentalism and other tenets of conscious consumerism as a way of broadening support, noting that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Black ethical consumerism, however, may not look like white activism. “There are certain practices and traditions within the African American community, and foodways […] that are also consistent with green practices or healthy living, but they might also not be included or part of the narrative to the same degree,” she says, pointing out that all the elderly Black people she knows have tended vegetable gardens for ages. 

Whether the pandemic ends with a bang or with a whimper, something has fundamentally changed since March 2020: When push comes to shove, our identities as consumers are much more fluid than we may have realized. Whether conscientious efforts pick back up post-pandemic, though, remains to be seen.