The Changing Tastes of Consumers

Growing up, my local grocery store was a natural foods market.  I wouldn’t have known the difference between that and the chain supermarkets nearby except for the clientele, most of whom had a very distinctive patchouli smell.  I didn’t realize that most of the produce or other items were pesticide-free, nitrate-free, additive-free and only used natural dyes for food coloring. Nor did I know it was a worker-owned cooperative.  I just knew that’s where we went to get our hand-ground peanut butter, preservative-free jam and whole grain bread.  My parents knew better than I did, but all I really wanted was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with Smuckers© jam and Skippy© peanut butter on Wonderbread©, just like the rest of my friends.  The neighborhood was in an uproar when we found out our beloved Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Food Market had been sold and was being turned into a Whole Foods Market. Who knew from Whole Foods in 1993?

These days I see tons of little kids roaming the aisles of Whole Foods looking for gluten-free, vegan, soy-free, nut-free and organic options for meals.  Of their own volition.  Kids eating PB and J on Wonderbread© are probably shunned at school these days.  Actually, peanut butter may be banned altogether.  More and more markets are providing consumers with locally grown or manufactured products, organic produce, dairy, grain and meat choices and baked goods made in-house.  Consumers have become more educated about the nutritional and health value of organic and minimally processed foods and are willing to pay a premium for the perceived benefits of a better diet.  Turning a product over to read the list of ingredients, calories per serving, fat, sodium and carbohydrate data is the norm.

Farmer’s markets are incredibly popular, not just for the amazing variety of farm to consumer produce and prepared foods, but for the added advantage of people being able to interact directly with farmers (or their reps).  I like knowing where my apples are grown, which citrus variety is the sweetest this week, or even how to roast those beautiful, purple potatoes.  Hint:  cut them into quarters, toss them in olive oil, salt and pepper, put a little more olive oil in a frying pan and cook them over medium high heat until browned on each side.

Call it a conscientious consumer, an environmentally aware customer or whatever else you want.  I’m hoping more manufacturers and retailers get on board with creating more educated shoppers as well. Helping consumers make well-informed decisions about recyclable or renewable products and producing goods using more sustainable materials in less polluting factories will all contribute to a healthier, happier planet.  Hopefully, the industry can reach a tipping point where sustainability is a driving factor for apparel, footwear and accessory purchases.  Instead of just looking at a hangtag to check the size or price, consumers would also be able to see what percentage of the product is made from sustainable, recycled or renewable materials.  Even better, they can also see what to do with the product once it’s no longer wanted.  Companies like Patagonia will repair damaged products and return to the consumer, Eileen Fisher buys back and recycles its own gently worn clothes, other companies will recycle denim to use for insulation and give you a discount on your next purchase. 

And while they’re at it, why not layer in consumer visibility into the supply chain?  Not all companies are willing to take the types of steps Everlane does to create a transparent supply chain and profit margin, but knowing that your apparel and footwear are produced in factories that treat their worker ethically and pay a living wage goes a long way with a knowledgeable customer.  Whole Foods Market has already done a great job with training consumers to pay more for better quality food and supplies and has opened the doors for more clothing and footwear manufacturers and retailers to do the same. Most people won’t necessarily have the opportunity to interact with the people who sewed their clothes or assembled their shoes like they can with the individuals who grow or make their food, but putting a face to a product makes the consumer more aware of the impact of their choices.

I realize that not every consumer is interested in the origin of their produce, the caloric, salt or fat content of their box of crackers or even if it’s manufactured in a facility that uses milk, soy, tree nuts or other allergens.  But it was only 1994 when the US required most foods to be labeled with­basic per-serving nutritional information, and 2009 when fresh meat (beef, pork and lamb) was required to have a country of origin label.  I’m hoping consumers will start requesting more information from their favorite apparel and footwear brands in the near future. Knowledge equals consumer power.

I’ll leave you with this food for thought: when our salad at lunch costs more than the t-shirt we’re wearing, it might be time to re-think the value we place on the quality and substance of what we wear, not just what we eat.

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