By Eric-Ross McLaren
Consumer culture is interwoven within our lives: from the ingredients in our fridges to the clothes on our backs. It is a culture most people fall into, the culture rich claim they take no part in it, but they do. Simply because everyone falls into their own category of “consumer.” Consumerism has surpassed its negative connotation and become a revolutionary label for those who shop with awareness and hold companies accountable.
The coronavirus pandemic has entangled itself within the lives of billions, startling and forcing nations to retreat to self-isolation. With citizens adapting to the new regulations, online shopping became a pertinent task in people’s day-to-day lives. But, in doing this, hidden economic benefits made an appearance. According to Forbes’ Blake Morgan, online shopping dramatically grew by 20% in 2020, and 36% of consumers shopped online weekly, an increase from 28% before the pandemic. Such growth in online consumer demand has sanctioned companies such as Shopify, an online e-commerce platform, and Squarespace, a website building engine, to procure the benefits. Wall Street Journal reported Shopify is worth a staggering $117 Billion, as their e-commerce sales increased by 37% to $200 billion in the second quarter of 2020. Similarly, gaining an additional $714.3 million – a 71% increase in profit compared to the first quarter of 2020 – in the same period from charging sellers a monthly fee and taking a percentage of every online transaction. Comparably, Squarespace increased its revenue by $500 million in 2020 due to the pandemic, having only been started in 2006 at a lesser revenue of $1.36 million. These two platforms’ increase in revenue presents how substantial the pandemic has been on online consumerism across hundreds of industries: grocery, fashion, and more. Nevertheless, this begs the question: how will consumers respond to online shopping post-pandemic? Shoppers may use this as an opportunity to explore much closer to home, seeing what their neighbourhoods have to offer, purchasing local produce, or shopping from their towns’ thrift shop. On the other hand, businesses may use this as an opportunity to leverage people staying at home and a desire to live a healthier, more eclectic lifestyle by launching delivery service apps such as Caviar, a delivery service that caters to local, health-based restaurants, and Blue Apron, a meal kit service that delivers straight to your door. One business to also consider is Thrive Market, an online platform where consumers can do their grocery shopping. At the start of the pandemic, they struggled immensely. Thrive Market could not keep up with the newfound supply and demand procured by the pandemic. According to Forbes Magazine, sales for Thrive increased by 90% (2020), having only reached a consistent 40% growth pre-pandemic. The company’s platform, which allows shoppers to curate their shopping list depending on their dietary restrictions, was an implementation that favoured them during the start of the pandemic. The demand for healthier, more wholesome foods truly made businesses such as Thrive Market, Caviar, Blue Apron, and more, flourish at the start of the pandemic and even created what one might consider an “ethical shopper.”
Furthermore, in connection with shoppers adapting to online shopping, Blake Morgan mentions 39% of US consumers say they will purchase from brands that adapted well to the pandemic (reliability), 39% of US consumers will purchase from more independent sellers, and 43% of consumers would spend more on convenience. With e-commerce stores booming, customers are becoming more demanding – wanting their purchases to arrive quicker and at ease. One prime example regarding consumer demand is Amazon’s shipping model. According to Forbes Samantha Radocchia, as consumers want their purchases sooner, and with companies such as Amazon adapting to this, delivery services such as FedEx and UPS scramble to keep up – especially amidst the pandemic. Conditions are so hectic causing few mailmen and women to chuck postage over consumers’ fences, dealing with the pressure of companies (Amazon) monitoring their every move, tracking how long it takes for each package to be delivered. December 2020, Mashable even released an article (“Amazon announces new employee tracking tech, and customers are lining up”) covering the technology companies can now use to track their employees; a success for online businesses, but not for workers. Customers who desire same-day or two-day shipping should consider the conditions of those delivering their packages: are companies treating them fairly?
Diverting from the economic and labour benefits (in the eyes of companies) consumerism yielded from the pandemic, many shoppers have begun to purchase more ethically. BBC’s Katherine Latham reports that ‘the US organic markets’ sales rose to an overall $252 billion’. Though many question the true ethics behind organic farming – whether a product is organic or not – this reveals the dramatic shift in consumer thinking: buying and cooking more organic, healthy products leads to a stronger immune system. At the peak of the pandemic, 60% of consumers reported they were making more environmentally ethical choices regarding purchases.
The pandemic not only shifted consumers to have a more healthy, ethical mindset; but has also sparked urgency in revisiting one’s closet. Over the years consumers have become more aware of the mistreatment of factory workers and animals in mass clothing production. Only years ago, Forever21 filed for bankruptcy and it emerged they were underpaying their workers. According to The Tartan, the U.S. Labour Department investigated the sweatshop giant and discovered they were paying their workers less than $4 an hour and $7 on average, $15 being the minimum wage in Los Angeles, where their headquarters and investigated factories were located. With this, times are changing, especially in the fashion world. Teen Vogue’s Laura Pitcher mentions that with the spark of the pandemic, racial injustice, and climate change, now is the time to become a more conscious shopper: evaluating who is making the clothing and where such garments are coming from. Clothing production accounts for 10% of human-produced carbon emissions, 150 million workers from lower-income countries lay risk of termination and exploitation, and the fashion industry itself is historically white-run and lacks in diversity. Pitcher’s points emphasize the importance of acknowledging the industry’s need for change. Such change stemming from fashion consumers need to advocate through shopping habits. Shantrelle P. Lewis defines a good shopper: “Being a good shopper is knowing exactly where and whom you are supporting whenever you purchase something. Are the owners doing good in the world?” Recently, during the U.S. Presidential Inauguration, Kamala Harris wore Pyer Moss, an up-and-coming black Haitian designer. Kamala’s ethical choice was simple: she chose a designer of colour who transformed his studio into a donation centre, donating $5,000 towards PPE and raised $50,000 for minority and women-run businesses surviving during the pandemic. Recognising where people of influence can support smaller and more ethical designers is precisely what Lewis is talking about: know the audience, know the designer, know the brand.
With awareness amongst consumers increasing regarding their fashion and food choices, according to McKinsey, 88% believe there is much importance on reducing pollution (how products are made and delivered), and 57% have changed their lifestyles to become more environmentally conscious. 60% of consumers even go out of their ways to recycle and acquire environmentally friendly packaging (compostable) products. Some consumers go as far as altering the package of their Amazon purchases (a doable but not straightforward process). According to The Gazette, you can replace plastic packing to paper by contacting and speaking with Amazon’s Customer Services departments. It seems ridiculous that shoppers must jump through hoops to become more sustainable. It even begs debate whether companies should implement these settings on their platforms or implement more sustainable practices entirely.
Consumerism is evolving: the complexities and layers of our world are becoming pertinent, and consumers play a role in carrying positive change out. Know who and where products originate, and question: “Is the business I support adaptable? Are they paying their workers enough? Who is running the business I support, and do I SUPPORT them?” Whether in your shopping habits or understanding one’s role in consumerism and shopping habits is fundamental to leading positive change.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.