You're Better Than That: Why Consumer Is a Dirty Word

You're Better Than That: Why Consumer Is a Dirty Word
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It probably goes unnoticed to most but we don't use the word consumer at our company. Several months back after seeing the True Cost movie and after a conversation with an industry executive about the word, my co-founder and I asked ourselves, why "consumer"?

And then we just stopped using it.

Our company, JUST, is empowering shoppers with information and data to incite change in the fashion industry. We have built an open catalog and forum of 150+ brands. Each brand is researched and categorized based on social, environmental and ethical factors to bring manufacturing practices to light and enable informed purchasing decisions.

While so many in the industry say, "Consumers don't care," we see it differently. We have found that if given the information in a convenient, accessible and compelling way, many "consumers" prefer to choose a product which doesn't harm the people or the planet and which aligns with their values.


photo credit: Nudie Jeans

While this has also been evidenced in multiple studies, it is difficult to determine a causal relationship between having the information and the decision to buy, as many factors (price, packaging, placement, bias) go into a purchase. Let's be honest - most of us can admit to a spontaneous purchase in our lives.

Yet, when we look at the evolution of the food industry towards healthier and more sustainable practices, including the organic and fair trade labeling and the farm to table movement, or even the recent move of major manufacturers to take artificial unnecessary sugars out of their food, we see a shift occurring in our behaviors around shopping. You can even get organic produce at Walmart.

So, with this shift evident to us, the problem with the word "consumer" was threefold.

First, when thinking about someone who buys a clothing item, the word itself bothered us: consumer, consume, consumption all come from the same root: the act of consuming, as by use, decay, or destruction. To consume has several definitions: while it can mean, "to buy goods or services," or, "to eat, drink or ingest food", it also means "to use up a resource". Synonyms of consumption include: depletion, exploitation, utilization - essentially, to use something and then get rid of it.

This is not to say that consume or consumer is always a dirty word. It is also a technical term used in economics: a prestigious academic just won the nobel prize for his research on consumption patterns of the poor.

But we did feel the word, "consumer", assumed a narrative about each one of us. It generalized us as people who buy and then buy more at the lowest price; that we don't care about the impact of our purchases and that we don't want to. And to us, that just didn't ring true. Apart from the fact that of course, all of us have different consumption habits and make decisions differently, we also felt like it ignores our basic humanity and commonality.

Because actually, we're better than that.

Second, this assumption about all of us in this framing as "consumer" also led the industry to an excuse for inaction. Currently, the fashion industry is obsolete and unaccountable. The reforms necessary to stop human trafficking, child labor, pollution and human rights abuses, while massive, complicated and difficult are imperative. But, "consumers don't care" gives an excuse for inaction on the part of executives - why invest in sustainability or ethics practices if it won't lead to more sales or costs? The word was tied to an industry wide assumption that was leading everyone not to take action.

Finally, we felt like even we were caught in this system: as a team who had set out to change the industry and believed things could be done differently, by using this word, we assumed behaviors on the part of our user, adopted their language and consequently, were operating in that same paradigm we felt needed reform.

All of these arguments pointed to one major issue for us: who gets to say who we are? What we want? What we value? We were paying for products that if made directly in front of us at the store, we would never buy:

Can we honestly say if we went to the mall, and next to checkout, a child was sewing the same jacket we were about to buy, we would buy it? Of course we wouldn't.

We as their clients, customers, shoppers, have a right not to be deceived for the money we pay and the loyalty we give to our favorite brands and retailers. Shiny, happy people dancing around a Christmas tree and across our TV screen should also mean that the people who made that fleece are smiling and celebrating, too. And right now, far too often, that's just not the case.

So this agreement of low prices and happy people in commercials, in exchange for pollution, child labor and poor quality products to boot? These assumptions about us not caring, this lack of accountability? We never signed up for this.

We started using a different term to break free from a way of thinking and set of assumptions about us and the way we shop. The status quo wasn't good enough for us.

We believe we can create the world we want to live in: that real change happens through the accumulation of small choices we make each day.

So what do we use instead? Shopper.

Shopper doesn't have a meaning of only consume behind it, it can be ascribed to multiple different types of people. Also, as opposed to consumer, which felt passive, shopper feels active to us, that a shopper wants to make a choice. Instead, we've found we often have to describe the type of shopper we're imagining. It forces us to actually talk about a human being their thoughts, feelings, experiences, not just one behavior.

A perfect term? By no means, but for us, it isn't tied to a system and assumption set.

And we try to be really deliberate about it: we self-correct when we do use the word. We don't say it in media, in meetings with our design, product team or even with our consulting clients. Some of our clients call the shopper, she, he, her, him, clients or customers, and we think those work well, too.

We believe consumer represents a system that must be questioned. We also believe in you and think you're better than that word. So, a humble request from a small little startup: let's all just stop using it. Language has power, and so do we.

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