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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 (wfto.org). 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 (transfairusa.org).

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 www.worldwatch.org.

  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 www.worldwatch.org.

  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 http://transfairusa.org.

  5. Grover, S. (2011.) Ethical Consumerism Bucks Recession and Grows 18%. Treehugger. Retrieved April 2, 2011 from http://www.treehugger.com/files/2011/01/ethical-consumerism-bucks-recession.php.

  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 http://www.wfto.com

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