Hippies? Yuppies? What does the fair trade consumer look like?

<p>Scruffy. Sandals. Tie-dye. Granola. Grateful Dead. Fair trade?<br /> <br /> Even a few years ago, most people associated sustainable consumption with a sort of neo-hippie San Francisco liberal archetype. Today, however, an increasing awareness of climate change, greater interested in corporate responsibility, and a growing roster of companies branding social good as part of the value they offer consumers is rendering this caricature obsolete (or at least, incomplete). <br /> <br /> The question then becomes, what does the sustainable consumer look like?<br /> <br /> A recent conversation with an investor working with drink company <a href="http://www.adinaworld.com/index.php">Adina</a> reminded me just how important this question is. Adina makes healthy coffee and juice drinks produced with organic and fair trade ingredients.&nbsp; Although there is a general sensibility and anecdotal evidence that more and more people are buying fair trade goods, there is little good demographic market information about where consumer bases exist and what moves fair trade from a niche market to something more mainstream.<br /> <br /> One of the major questions is where on the list of priorities does ethical production fall for most consumers? Are they willing to sacrifice taste? Are they willing to spend more? If so, how much more? <br /> <br /> This question of priorities is essential for creating a market more accountable to social needs. On my personal blog, <a href="http://dogoodwell.wordpress.com/2008/09/15/question-of-the-week-who-need... Good Well</a>, I&rsquo;ve been soliciting people&rsquo;s opinions about whether it&rsquo;s the consumer or producer that needs to take the lead on sustainable consumption. Vanessa Mason, who blogs about global health and social change <a href="http://vanessamason.wordpress.com/">here</a>, pointed out that the first step is for companies to take advantage of &ldquo;low-hanging fruit,&rdquo; or opportunities where the company&rsquo;s brand or product coincides with a consumer base focused on sustainability and social good. These early steps can help establish patterns, best practices, and consumer data. <br /> <br /> Jeff Swartz, the CEO of <a href="http://www.timberland.com/home/index.jsp">Timberland</a>, left a really thoughtful post that discussed their experience with this question. It&rsquo;s worth quoting at length:<br /> <br /> <em>&ldquo;15+ years later, this much is clear to me&ndash;you can make powerful, &ldquo;go first&rdquo; choices to run your business responsibly. But if you can&rsquo;t make responsibility sexy and emotionally valuable to your consumer, you risk being well intended, even earnest&ndash;just not sustainable.<br /> <br /> Our conclusion is, be responsible, and be interesting. Consumers appreciate responsible, but they respond to stimulating. If the food guys could make an odd shaped, non-waxed slightly wormy organic apple sexy&ndash;it is up to us to make sexy a great pair of boots, using renewable energy generated at the factory, with a sole made from reclaimed tires from the landfill, in a factory that accords each worker dignity and more.<br /> <br /> The CEO has to go first. But sustainable capitalism is not a consumer benefit. Go first, be sexy.&rdquo;</em><br /> <br /> I&rsquo;m interested in hearing reader&rsquo;s perspectives. What influences your purchasing choices? How much more are you willing to pay for ethically produced goods? Do you have examples of a company or brand that emphasizes sustainability with which you have had a particularly positive experience? What does the sustainable consumer look like?<br /> <br /> For those interested in questions like these, I encourage you to check out a conference happening in about three weeks called Social Capital Markets. Bringing together investors, entrepreneurs, and others interested in the increasing intersection between &ldquo;money and meaning,&rdquo; it will feature speakers and participants at the heart of these very issues. Learning more <a href="http://socialcapitalmarkets.net/index.php">here</a>.</p>
<p><em>Nathaniel Whittemore is the founding director of the Northwestern University <a href="http://www.mycge.org/">Center for Global Engagement</a> and blogs at <a href="http://dogoodwell.wordpress.com/">Do Good Well.</a></em></p>