There’s a growing clamor to stop calling people “consumers”

How much do I need this?
How much do I need this?
Image: Reuters/Jeff Christensen
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Consumer. We’ve become so used to the word that it’s easy to see it as a synonym for “person”—maybe not in everyday speech, but in business publications, research, and journalism. The argument for its ubiquity is fair: All humans consume, even if our consumption is limited to food, water, and the other things necessary for survival. Many of us consume a lot.

But there’s a small, growing group that’s beginning to reject the term, together with what it’s come to mean about our society, and the kinds of economies we aspire to. Fundamentally, they say, we shouldn’t view people through the lens of what they acquire, devour, or use up.

As companies across industries begin to take concepts like carbon neutrality and circular economies more seriously, they’re becoming uncomfortable with the word and searching for a less loaded alternative.

Endless consumption is not the goal, they say, but the problem. And we need a change in our language to help us see that problem and solve it.

“We don’t even call them, any more, consumers,” says Silvia Mazzanti, sustainability manager at Italian outerwear brand Save the Duck. “[T]hey are final users, they are clients. They are people that need to be involved—not consumers; they don’t want to consume.”

“I don’t want to be defined as a consumer”

For a company that sells hardwearing clothing, like Save the Duck (the name comes from the company’s avoidance of feathers and other animal products in its clothing), it makes sense to emphasize that its products can help customers avoid consumption, by lasting a very long time. Patagonia, the US outdoor clothing maker often cited as one of the companies most focused on sustainability globally, famously ran a Black Friday holiday shopping ad in 2011 with a picture of one of its durable fleece jackets under the text “Don’t Buy This Jacket.”

Black Friday “and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red,” Patagonia argued in its appeal. “Don’t buy what you don’t need. Think twice before you buy anything.”

But it’s not just companies that trade in long-lasting fleeces that reject the idea of consumerism.

Maria Paola Chiesi is shared value and sustainability head of Chiesi Group, a large pharmaceutical company based in Italy. It’s also the only international pharma company to have achieved B Corp status, a company structure that enshrines a duty of care to multiple stakeholders, not just shareholders. Patagonia and Save the Duck also are B Corps.

Chiesi checked herself and apologized after using the word consumer to describe the people who buy her and other firms’ products, interrupting a point about working together with B Corps in other industries to clarify her position on consumerism:

“We struggle for the same things. Sometimes institutions don’t listen to us if we are a single company, but if we are a movement we can be more vocal towards both the institutions, but also the consumer, the general population. I don’t like the word consumer…I hate it.”

Why? “Because we’re citizens, we are people,” Chiesi says. “Sometimes we happen to consume things, but I don’t want to be defined as a consumer.”

Academia is also questioning consumerism

Even some academics whose job it is to research consumerism are becoming less sure about the term—sometimes to the dismay of their peers.

“Oddly, some members of our community cringe or sneer at the word consumer,” wrote the editors of the Journal of Consumer Research in a January editorial. “We must examine that tendency and do more to happily embrace the consumer focus of our domain.”

Their argument is that understanding people’s choices when they are “acting as ‘consumers'” will help us know more about what they’re likely to choose in the future. That, of course, is valuable information to everyone from marketers to climate activists.

Of course, “consumer” is a useful term for academics studying how we spend money and time, and it makes sense that the editors of a journal with “consumer” in the title wouldn’t want their authors to tie themselves up in knots trying to avoid it. But it also seems that the word is bothering people, even in fields closely associated with it—perhaps especially in such fields.

Consumerism by any other name

Blair Taylor doesn’t see the concept of consumerism going anywhere. Taylor is managing director of talent and organization at Accenture, and the consultancy’s North American lead on inclusion and diversity. He’s also a former CEO of the nonprofit Los Angeles Urban League and former president of the Starbucks Foundation.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario where companies aren’t thinking about the target populations and audiences that are going to allow them to continue to survive,” Taylor said. “We’re selling you something, and therefore we’re able to make more of it.”

“I just believe that relationship will never go away,” he said. “But I do think it is shifting in terms of the power dynamic.”

Taylor says we’re at an inflection point in how much consumers can influence the makers of that which they consume. Never before has the public clamor been louder for fairer practices at work, more honest marketing, and less damage to society and the planet.

But if the fundamental relationship between producer and consumer is here to stay, maybe arguing about the word itself is just semantics? Maybe not. A lot of people have been calling on companies to act more ethically for years. It seems possible that the noise has finally reached a pitch that’s impossible to ignore.

What ultimately causes change?

A select few brands, like Apple, have made a fortune selling people things they didn’t even realize they wanted. But most companies sell things based on customer demand. If one of those demands is a genuine desire to have less stuff, to save energy, and to preserve natural resources, then not calling those people consumers will be a smart move.

If ordinary people “are aware of how powerful they can be with their own choices, everyday choices, everything will change,” Save the Duck’s Mazzanti says. “[C]ompanies at the moment are very comfortable, in the way they have always worked. It’s just the push from the bottom that will really push them to change.”