The Christmas period is a time of strong consumerism, and it can be a challenge for those seeking to resist the temptation of compulsive buying. Thanks to various studies, we explore the balance between the desire to offer ethical and sustainable gifts and the frenzy of Christmas consumerism. We also ask how companies can meet consumer expectations for ethical and sustainable products?
Interview with Aurélie Merle, an associate professor of marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management and an expert on consumer behavior and sustainable marketing.
How do you define a sustainable purchase?
Ethical consumption first uses the idea of “buying better” by thinking about social and environmental consequences. But ethical consumption also includes the pre- and post-purchase thought and action process. This can translate to simply not buying something or buying less than initially planned. It also includes questioning oneself about the need for consumerism in order to fulfill our desires. We know there are other options such as bartering, renting, etc. Ethical consumption also includes the post-purchase period which means thinking about how a product will be used and for how long. Is it energy efficient, can it be repaired, recycled? Ethical shopping is about so much more than just the act of buying a “sustainable” product.
Is there an “ethical” consumer profile?
It’s difficult to define a specific profile for the “ethical” consumer because the reality is that there are many different profiles that are motivated by different causes and behave differently as a result. In any case, their numbers are growing, in particular due to the dangers of climate change. According to a recent study (Greenflex/Ademe), 73% of French consumers believe we need to act for climate change. However, there are 10-15% who are sceptical and refuse to change and 10-15% who are highly engaged, pro-environmental consumers. In between these two extremes, there are a variety of profiles and behaviors that depend on the consumer context and the types of products or services.
What factors help differentiate between these various profiles?
A recent Credoc study highlights environmental awareness and economic status as two primary factors. French consumers with big wallets tend to be more environmentally conscious buyers, but at the same time they have a greater impact on the environment due in particular to their transportation habits.
With all this in mind, what can be said about ethical Christmas shopping?
There are behavioral changes underway. For example, a recent E.Leclerc study highlights that 37% of consumers are interested in the ethical dimension of their christmas dinner and care about buying local, regional and organic products. 7% have even opted for vegetarian menus. The same trend can be seen for christmas presents with more people buying recycled and repaired products. However, the trend is still largely a minority.
Christmas shopping has two primary motivations: first, the hedonistic benefits created by the “pleasure of buying”, and second, symbolic benefits tied to giving gifts to children or other participants. The desire to give and receive “agreeable feelings” through gifts and shopping is largely more important than virtuous behavior tied to environmental and societal causes. To handle this dissonance, many consumers use compensation mechanisms such as “I’m careful all year round, but at least, at Christmas I can let loose!”. The famous French Foie Gras is a perfect example of this paradox. The trend towards animal well-being and less meat consumption is not at all concordant with Foie Gras. Yet Foie Gras is an essential element of a Christmas meal for 76% of French consumers (Statista 2019). Pleasure is also the dominating factor with 11 presents given on average to a 3 year old child (barometer: Approuvé par les familles 2019). Pleasure is reinforced by the desire for abundance and material possessions. As a result, christmas shopping tends to push back against the sustainable purchasing of used items for example.
In conclusion, hyperconsumerism is a real challenge at Christmas time. One in ten french consumers take on debt in order to purchase Christmas-related goods. And one in five have already sold gifts they’ve been given. We also have to account for the negative, long-term impact of hyperconsumerism on children.
How can companies react to this situation without falling into the greenwashing trend?
Opposition to Black Friday symbolizes a real desire to go against these hyperconsumerist trends. For the past three years, Camif closed its online sales website on Black Friday. In 2016, Patagonia donated 100% of its Black Friday turnover to environmental associations.
There’s a real issue about prices. Consumers no longer buy at full market price. 80% of consumers wait for sales to buy clothing. These outrageous price reductions mean that nobody understands what makes a price. Prices symbolize value. The lower the price, the more it can be wasted. As a result, 70% of purchased clothing isn’t even used.
Many companies in sustainable commerce have been working on how to define prices, how to share profits across the value chain and how to limit sales and promotions. Other companies are engaged in product life cycles, including everything from how suppliers are paid to defining a “fair” end-price all the while reducing environmental impacts. 1083 is a brand of jeans and other products that are produced in Romans-sur-Isère. Their products are made with organic or recycled materials and produced in France within a radius of 1083 kilometers. In collaboration with Slip français (a French underwear company), the company is working on creating locally manufactured thread with recycled materials.
Certain food brands are also transitioning towards sustainable food products by supporting large scale environmentally friendly practices such as creating a French organic porc industry for the brand Fleury Michon (whose organic pork used to be 95% Danish). Others are acting to improve salaries for farmers or diminish pesticides. These goals are not about short term profits but rather focus on a long term vision of the food industry.