And what can marketers do to remain relevant?
As I walk outside my New York City office near Broadway and Prince, I see few indications of a change in the consumption habits taking place around the world. The sidewalks in every direction are packed with shoppers carrying such a collection of bags they are quite literally creating pedestrian gridlock. But this is Soho, home to the “one percent” as well as those pretending to be for a few days. But marketers don’t be mislead. Throughout most of the world’s economies there is a major shift in consumption underway that I believe is about to establish a new normal of more conscious consumption.
Gen Y and Z form the point of the conscious consumption spear, but this movement is broadening across other age cohorts as well. Businesses and brands across almost every category should expect to feel the impact – from automotive, home furniture & appliances to food & dining and fashion to travel, finance and banking, energy and more.
The beginning of the shift.
The 2008 – 2012 economic downturn was devastating for many individuals and families around the world. The realities of unemployment and lower discretionary income with no end in sight created a psychology that gave birth to the necessity of doing with less. At first we all felt anger and resentment at the changes in buying power that upended entrenched shopping and consumption habits across a huge swath of our global economy. After all, we had expectations of certain “needs” that were cultivated over the previous 20, 30, 40, 50 years or so. But like many other aspects of real life – once faced with this change, we adapted to it, learned from it and are now beginning a new normal of consumption. One where we not only get along with less, but consciously desire less and understand the myriad reasons why the new normal is a better solution.
According to a recent Euromonitor International Report , “The protracted nature of the global economy’s recovery from the financial crisis provides the backdrop to the New Consumerism. In the years following on from the crisis, stagnant incomes, high unemployment and weak consumer confidence helped to fundamentally alter attitudes to consumption.”
As early as 2012 articles appeared about desperate automakers trying to understand the decline among young people in driving overall, let alone buying new cars. In a 2012 Atlantic Monthly Article , Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissman wrote that, “The fact is, today’s young people simply don’t drive like their predecessors did. In 2010, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 bought just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, down from the peak of 38 percent in 1985. Miles driven are down, too. Even the proportion of teenagers with a license fell, by 28 percent, between 1998 and 2008.”
While the crashing economy provided the initial chinks in the armor of old school consumption patterns, three other primary forces arose to help carry this trend forward and complete the new normal for consumption.
According to the UN already more than half the world lives in urban areas – with a trend that will add approximately 2.5 billion more inhabitants to cities for total of 66% of the world’s population by 2050. Increasing proximity of large populations of humans will come with both costs and benefits. As relates to the trend toward a new normal of conscious consumption, urbanization creates new opportunities for collaboration and sharing … everything. From ideas to automobiles. From homes to food. There is a growing realization that not everyone needs their own power drill, for example. What they really need is a hole, and borrowing or renting a drill becomes much easier with higher concentrations of people living closely together.
When diverse groups of people come together physically, something else happens on an emotional level. These personal connections inspire music, art, dance, film, food and many other components of a creative class that drive cultural and lifestyle experiences. It’s no wonder research shows more millennials are seeking experiences over goods. A Harris Group Study  discovered that 72 percent of millennials prefer to spend more on experiences than on material items. And millennials are serving as cultural ambassadors for other generational cohorts – older and younger. 
Along with growing urbanization around the world comes more visibility and knowledge of the real limits to our natural resources. Across many touch points, people clearly see that water, food, oil, energy and even fresh air are not limitless. Whether through greater access to the Internet or more direct human conversation spreading the word – the result is higher visibility and understanding of the world’s depleting natural resources. And guess what? Consumers actually care. They are slowly shifting their habits to accommodate this understanding.
Looking just at water for a moment, more and more people are taking notice of the amount of water used to make the things we buy. The website PeakProsperity.com reports  some startling facts about water. For example, “roughly 40,000 gallons of water are used to build a single car; the process of producing a single latte — from growing the sugarcane and coffee to constructing the paper cup and sleeve — demands 53 gallons of water. Each plastic water bottle, which holds a couple cups of water, takes 1.85 gallons to produce.”
Smart brands know that their consumers know this (or will know this) and have been taking action to support water conservation in their operations. One of the most notable is probably Levi’s who began rethinking water usage earlier this decade. Since launching the Water<Less™  processes in 2011, Levi’s has saved more than 1 billion liters of water in the manufacturing of their products. And they’ve also saved 30 million liters of fresh water through the industry’s first Water Recycling and Reuse Standard, which they piloted with a Chinese vendor partner. . These are the type of initiatives by global brands that will help insure strong and relevant connections with consumers as the world transitions to the new normal.
The third – and perhaps most important – component enabling the expansion of this new normal for conscious consumption is technology. While technology as a factor in this trend is multifaceted to say the least, I see the combination of global smartphone penetration (putting computers and the Internet in everyone’s pockets) coupled with transparency and networking that eliminates middle men as having the greatest impact. First of all, information is power and consumers have more of it than ever. At their finger tips. The ability to compare prices, order personalized products and services from companies anywhere in the world – or, perhaps most importantly, from each other – is unprecedented.
Technology is introducing and enabling new direct networks every day that empower individuals in their work, shopping, sharing, eating, traveling, playing and more. Peer to peer network technologies make sharing our under utilized assets easy, safe, fun and profitable. Primarily because they bring real people together without interference from corporate middlemen. Allowing them to provide real product reviews, opinions and, in essence, holding companies accountable to the truth. This is destabilizing the current commercial infrastructure that has existed for decades (if not longer). This shift is paving the way for “clean slate” brands to emerge often at the expense of legacy brands. Old brands were set up in the era of industrial capitalism, when secrecy was a source of competitive advantage and shareholders encouraged pursuit of profit at all costs. For many conscious consumers these “sins” are often difficult to overcome. In the new normal, tradition equals baggage; heritage equals tired or even tainted.
So what does all this mean for marketers?
The new normal of conscious consumption is nothing less than a total reassessment and re-prioritization of consumers needs and wants. Life has become LIFE! and the millennial generation has taken the lead in rewriting their script to get the most out of it. Importantly, they also understand it’s up to them to make sure there is a life to leave behind for future generations.
The impacts from this new belief system will be sweeping and have unique variations across industries and brands. Understanding the new conscious consumption ethos underway will better help all businesses design products and services as well as design marketing messaging and brand connections that better resonate with the evolving consumer desires. The brands who create a platform of authentic experience will likely form a stronger bond with their consumers and enjoy long term sustainable growth.
The new normal is a good thing for commerce and humankind. By more fully understanding the implications and new rules of conscious consumption being imposed on businesses, brands, governments and each other … the more we can all participate in the fruits of sustainable growth.