Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
April 10th, 2013

A Major Trend in Consumer Behavior – Conscious Capitalism

[This column was first published in Shift Age Newsletter #22]

One of the three major consumer trends I have been speaking about during the past few years is conscious capitalism.  Conscious capitalism is when a company takes on an altruistic cause, charity or practice and applies revenue to that endeavor.

Initially this behavior was mostly about creating a feel good halo around a brand.  Donating to or underwriting a charity has long been a way to allow a company to point to something that it was supporting to benefit it’s hometown community or a national charity.  Supporting a 10k run or walk for charity, or volunteering employees for a day of community clean up became very popular in the latter part of the 20th century.  The message was, “look at us, we do good work.”  Okay, fine and good to do, but since every company now does this whether supporting the fight against cancer or sponsoring a little league team, it is no longer anything other than normal behavior that is expected.

This then led to creating a campaign or product line where a percentage of proceeds, usually miniscule, went to a larger cause.  The best example of this was the Red campaign a few years ago that gave a small percentage of revenue to the fight against HIV and AIDS.  The problem with campaigns like this is that the actual amount of money, as a percentage of total revenues, was small.  So the perception developed, particularly among younger generations, was that this was an activity that used the feel good participation of consumers to drive sales.  The response to such behavior was no longer “that’s great, here’s my money!” to “ before I spend, how much of my money actually goes to the cause to which you are aligning?”

Then companies like Tom’s Shoes came along and changed the game.  Tom’s shoes position was basically:  buy a pair of shoes from us and we will donate a pair of shoes to people who have no shoes in the developing world.  Not a small percentage of revenue or effort, but a one to one ratio of contribution.  This is the new paradigm if you want to be perceived as making a difference in the world.

Another company that has chosen to change the world with compassion is the Panera Bread Company.  Currently in six locations around America, Panera has opened or converted stores under the Panera Cares brand.  These are now non-profit places serving the communities.  Walk into a Panera Cares, as I did last month, and when your food or beverage order is rung up you are told something like “this is a suggested donation, please put your donation in the donation box [in front of the cash register]  if you can’t make the full donation, donate what you can.  If you want to support our efforts to help the community, feel free to make a larger donation”  Well, in went my $10 bill for my $7.98 salad.

Then, while enjoying a catch up meeting with a friend, people came around to ask if they could clear the table and to thank us for dining at Panera’s.  As a largely self-pick up and clean up restaurant this was different.  I looked around at the fuller than usual restaurant and, in addition to those intent folks with ear buds and laptops or office mates sharing a meal, I saw a number of people who were older, clearly down on their luck and, as I found out, having a free meal.  The people who were clearing the tables were other people who were working an hour or two in return for the free food they had consumed.  One free serving a week and if you need more you have to work for more.

Entering Panera Cares one is greeted by an “ambassador” who clearly explains the non-profit, contribution model in place.  The mission however goes beyond simply providing free food to those in need.  One ambassador proudly told me that this was not only the best job she has ever had, but showed me a reason why.  On a bulletin board were photographs of former recipients of both free work and good work training at Panera Cares who had moved on.  One former patron, she pointed out with pride, had been released from a “home” due to a budget cutback, then had been given works skills help at Panera Cares, had gone on to gainful employment and had just won “employee of the month”.

The name over the door is Panera Cares.  They do.

Companies such at Tom’s Shoes and Panera for Panera Cares are at the leading edge of what will be a huge move to conscious capitalism.  The two largest driving forces of this are global and generational.  Global in that the climate change fundamentals are dramatically increasing our “Spaceship Earth” mentality of sense of fragile preciousness of this lone planet of ours.  Generational in that the Millennial generation sees conscious capitalism as one of the first influencers of what and where they buy.  I guest lecture at the Ringling College of Art +Design where some of the most creative and talented 18-23 year olds grace me with their attention.  It is not far from the truth to say that almost every class I have been in, there is a Tom’s decal on a laptop.

Increasingly in the future, if you seek money from customers, expect them to ask first what your contributory vision is of making the planet a better place.

Note #1:  “Spaceship Earth” is a term both Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan used.  Best quote is from McLuhan:  “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth.  We are all crew”

Note #2  I will address the other two major consumer trends in the next Newsletter.

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