Developing a Smarter – Not Simpler – Consumer

This post is part of a blogging series by economics students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Nellie Stadtherr

According the to World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the growth of the global middle class has brought an influx of consumerism and is projected to continue to rise over the foreseeable future. As income rises, so does spending on goods and services and as this sector of our economy increases, so does the stress on resources, ecosystems, and societies in efforts to meet demand (2008). Many sustainability advocates believe citizens, especially those in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, need to change their consumption patterns in order to minimize the negative consequences of consumerism. This perspective, while valid, requires an extensive ideology shift and fails to create positive impact in the short-term. In addition to challenging consumers to purchase less, advocates need to persuade consumers to purchase smarter, specifically with fair trade goods.

I agree our society’s unquenchable thirst for status and worth sought through the acquisition of material goods is not only unsustainable but conveys a misalignment of our values. However, I don’t foresee “voluntary simplicity” – the shifting of cultural norms to purchase less and reclaim satisfaction in nature and non-market goods (Andrews, Urbanska, 2010) – occurring easily or in the near future. Consumerism is heavily integrated into our culture. Since the 1960’s, our country has experienced an explosion in consumer markets, with consumer spending per person almost tripling between 1960 and 2006 (Assadiurian, 2010). Substantially evolving consumer behavior that has been established for over 40 years will require incremental change. Proponents of this position acknowledge this process will take decades to accomplish (Assdiurian, 2010).

Increasing the demand for fair trade counterparts to conventional products, however, provides a means for more immediate environmental restoration and economic development without compromising consumer’s lifestyle patterns. Fair trade goods are produced and distributed under standards championed by the World Fair Trade Organization, ensuring the protection of the environment and societies impacted in product development ( Initially an industry dominated by coffee from select South American and African countries, fair trade now has a global momentum, providing an array of goods that fall into the market segments on which consumers tend to spend their discretionary budgets such as apparel, richer foods, and home goods (Assadourian 2010). This industry expansion benefits communities across global markets.  As of 2010, more than 10,000 Fair Trade Certified™ products were sold in more than 70 countries worldwide (

Influenced by the growth of the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) market, the fair trade industry has weathered the economic storm, indicating consumer assimilation of fair trade values and an opportunity to further expand the market. Sales of fair trade apparel, accessories (handbags, scarves, jewelry) and home textiles and décor increased at an average rate of over 19 percent in 2008 (Fair Trade Federation, 2009). In the UK sales of fair trade goods increased 64 percent from 2007 to 2009 (Grover, 2011).

As the fair trade industry grows, more sustainable substitutes are available for consumers. These goods aren’t just better for the environment, they are a critical tool for economic and community development for marginalized populations. Promoting the purchase of fair trade goods, rather than embarking on an uphill battle to convince our consumerist society that it can realize  satisfaction through the sacrifice of material goods, provides an incremental change in consumer awareness that fosters sustainable change on a global scale. No one initiative is going to be the solution to the damage we have created. But if we can increase consumer awareness and investment in smarter goods, we will be decreasing our impact on the planet while supporting those who don’t have the income to choose.


  1. Andrews, C, Urbanska, W. (2010). Inspiring People to See That Less is More. State of the World Transforming Cultures From Consumerism to Sustainability. The Worldwatch Institute. Retrieved April 17, 2011 from
  2. Assadourian, E. (2010). The Rise and Fall of Consumer Cultures. State of the World Transforming Cultures From Consumerism to Sustainability. The Worldwatch Institute. Retrieved April 17, 2011 from
  3. Fair Trade Federation. (2009). Report on Trends in the North American Fair Trade Market. Washington DC.
  4. Fair Trade USA. (n.d.). Fair Trade USA. Retrieved March 27 from
  5. Grover, S. (2011.) Ethical Consumerism Bucks Recession and Grows 18%. Treehugger. Retrieved April 2, 2011 from
  6. World Business Council for Sustainable Development. (2008). Sustainable Consumption Facts and Trends. Ata Roto Press; SA, Switzerland.
  7. World Fair Trade Organization. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2011 from

5 responses

  1. Nellie, I enjoyed the depth of your article and even took notes that gives me my to do list for the next few days. Your statement ” In addition to challenging consumers to purchase less, advocates need to persuade consumers to purchase smarter, specifically with fair trade goods.” could not be truer. I am currently looking getting “Fair Trade Certified” and am finding the task daunting. I manage a jewelry company that supports orphanages with the proceeds and have always seen the importance of making sure that the jewelry artisans are well compensated for their works of art. You can see a recent letter that we received from one of the artists here: My current dilemma is the expense that goes into becoming Fair Trade certified and am wondering who is the best organization to use. I have lived and worked in Bali, Indonesia part time for 20 years now, and have seen “fair trade cert” companies that come through for a week and buy from suppliers that only produce a token amount on-site and the majority of what is produced (90% +) comes from subcontractors whose employees work in horrible conditions. I design and work along-side our artists. I go to the hospital when their children are born, go to family funerals and celebrate with them at weddings. I do not want to use the money that could go directly to their children’s school fund simply to “purchase” a fair trade logo for our website. Could you help be recommending a Fair Trade Certifier that is know for it’s follow up? Thank you in advance for your help. = )

    1. Hi Charlie,
      I appreciate and applaud your commitment to the true standards of fair trade and community development. Have you looked into FLO-CERT?
      They are part of the Fair Trade Labelling Organization (FLO) founded to establish criteria and maintain fair trade brand integrity. They have a Quality Management section on their site for you to review as well.

      I will be in Bali this August after finishing some economic development work in Ambon this summer. I would love to visit the artisans and orphanages you work with! If you think that would be feasible, let me know!

      Good luck on your certification, please let me know if there’s any more insight I can provide!

      1. Thank you for your reply Nellie! I will definitely check out FLO-cert. Thanks for the tip. So cool to hear that you will be in Bali soon, and yes it would be GREAT to have you visit the children and artists. You’ll have fun! If I’m not there you’ll meet Dewa and he’ll take care of you. Some of the children are from Ambon and will be so excited to meet you. “Wulan”, one of the girls that lives there, just made her 1st post on our facebook page if you’d like to leave her a note it would make her day. the link is
        Thanks again for you help! Charlie = )

  2. Nellie, I’m Kory Lundberg from Walmart’s sustainability communications team. This is a very thoughtful article. Beyond Fair Trade, there’s also an opportunity for retailers and suppliers to improve the environmental and social aspects of the products customers are currently buying. Walmart is part of The Sustainability Consortium (, which is working to do just that.

    1. Hi Kory,

      Thank you for your comment! I greatly respect the work of the Consortium and Walmart. It is inspiring to see high-level corporate sustainability engagement. The power of consumer purchasing is incredible and pushing those trends further towards sustainability on all fronts is a great goal and accomplishment.

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