We have never found a suitable alternative, so we throw the word around all the time: consumer. Yet it doesn’t seem quite right, implying some sort of mindlessness associated with our everyday actions—everything from purchasing products we eat, drink and apply to our bodies to using environmental resources.
Increasingly, research and media have called into question this verbiage. When “consumer” replaces “men” and “women," it strips people of their identity and even promotes selfishness and isolation, according to a study from Northwestern University.
Other research (and observations), however, are proving that “consumers” are becoming much more than purchasing machines, regardless of what we call them.
Shoppers more discerning about claims
When I found this recent study focused on cosmetic shoppers, it reinforced one way in which the new consumer has evolved, prompting companies to deliver products and messages in new ways.
According to research from the University of Georgia, “wading through the advertised claims of these cosmeceutical products is a part of the purchasing process for female consumers.”
The research states that education about cosmeceutical ingredients and the ability to develop “appropriate expectations” is the best way for advertisers to earn trust. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t differentiate between cosmetics and cosmeceuticals (a cosmetic that uses “active ingredients” such as plant stem cells to accomplish a specific goal) so cosmeceuticals must meet the same labeling requirements as cosmetics.
But in the cosmetic industry, noncompliant claims are widespread, as we saw with the recent Lancome debacle. And of course our own industry has many issues surrounding different claims—particularly natural and organic—along with the same structure-function claims conventional companies like Lancome are battling for their cosmeceuticals.
Therefore, it's critical for shoppers to more carefully consider what's behind the ads.
Cosmetics and supplements in particular are so science based that I think these changes in consumer mindsets are critical. But beyond how shoppers consider ingredients and claims, my experiences in the natural products industry have proven that “consuming” is not only far from mindless but also far from selfish.
Increasingly, people are considering not just their health and the health of their families, but also the environment, local economy and communities in need. Case in point: the growth of fair trade food and personal care products. In 2011, sales of Fair Trade USA aromatherapy and body oils increased 19 percent, while skin care increased by 32 percent.
In fact, making purchases such as these seems to unite consumers (er, people) in a greater community that stands for a cause, rather than isolate them, as Northwestern’s “Consumerism and Its Antisocial Effects Can be Turned On—Or Off” claims. The consumer status, the authors concluded “did not unite; it divided.”
I beg to differ.
Social media and other digital tools also lend brands, both in natural and mass, the opportunity to connect with shoppers and establish a community. In the natural space, companies such as Aura Cacia (check out its sourcing videos) and One Degree Organics are using digital resources to tell a story that far transcends the product.
Of course, there is a problem. Even the research I have cited that refutes the traditional idea of consumerism still refers to people as consumers.
This leads me to believe we may never come up with a better term and that’s okay. As people continue to put more thought, in so many different ways, into their purchases, we will start to redefine the word. And that's what matters.
What do you think of the word "consumer?" Share in the comments.