How DTC Brands Have Changed Conscious Consumerism Forever

Reforms led by digital-first brands are shaping the way that business is done

One of the world's most celebrated and most expensive restaurants, Eleven Madison Park, decided to go meatless this week in a climate-change initiative. Last month, Coca-Cola and Delta issued criticisms of a voter access law in Georgia. A few days later, Microsoft released a statement after the conviction of Derek Chauvin.

Held together, each of these developments speak to a major evolution of these past few years: While in the past, the extent of a company's activism was some minor philanthropy and money shoveled into PACs that best served their interests, that isn't enough anymore. More and more consumers are looking for businesses to reflect their values, exhibit a conscience, and maintain a public point of view.

The emergence of conscious consumerism wasn't a given. (It's still controversial.) It happened for the same reasons that Direct-to-Consumer brands entered the marketplace. The internet democratized the world of commerce, consumers suddenly had more options and more information, and mission-driven entrepreneurs made buying feeling like a personal choice. And nothing has been the same since.

Nearly 60% of consumers in the U.S., along with nearly 75% of younger age groups, said they want businesses to be vocal about important issues.

What Is Conscious Consumerism?

Simply put, conscious consumerism is when buying habits are driven by a commitment to positive social, economic, and environmental impact. It's a movement that started small in the 1970s, but has become a huge part of the identity of Millennial and Gen Z shoppers.

This means that consumers are looking beyond the marketing copy and price points and are truly doing the work of finding out what a company stands for. In its messaging, in its products, and in its charitable giving. Just one example from our Social Impact report with ShoppingGives earlier this year, "nearly 60% of consumers in the U.S., along with nearly 75% of younger age groups, said they want businesses to be vocal about important issues."

In other words, the marketplace is looking for brands that tell a meaningful story, sell a meaningful product, and stand for meaningful ideas, especially in a polarized, fast-changing social environment. That kind of nimble, forward-thinking structure is practically built into Direct-to-Consumer model.

How DTCs Are Leading the Charge

From the early days of the Direct-to-Consumer boom, whether it was sustainability-focused brands like Everlane or Allbirds or philanthropy-driven purchasing models like Warby Parker, the rise of digital-first brands in the public consciousness has been accompanied by the idea that having a mission should be central to a business.

That idea has proven to be not just popular, but durable as well. As Retail Brew's list of 2020's Fastest Growing DTCs noted, the Top 15 brands of last year were heavily populated by companies with a particular social focus, despite the domination of the pandemic and work-from-home retail trends.

"Youth To The People, a brand that fuses superfood skincare with social activism, topped our list," the report noted. "Visits to its online store grew 874% YoY." Placing third last year was DTC lingerie brand CUUP, whose company message of inclusivity, quality, and body positivity helped yield it 409% Year Over Year growth. (Read our interview with CUUP founder and CMO Abby Morgan here.) Others on the list also included a cosmetics DTC (By Humankind) with a plastic-waste reduction initiative and the meal delivery brand Misfits Market, which offers kits with irregular items typically passed over by supermarkets in an effort to reduce food waste.

A Permanent Change

The total effect of the DTC boom is that bigger businesses are changing their operations as more shoppers look for products to match their specific needs as well as their values.

Where Direct-to-Consumer brands stand out from the pack is through the level of the communication and the depth of the community, which allows them to know the preferences of their most loyal shoppers, whether it's an item or an issue. The results are better products with more authentic marketing, a more genuine connection to mission, and a more idealistic world to boot.