Concerns about the “factors of production”—which refers to land, capital, labour, and entrepreneurship as the four limiting factors of all production—as they relate to consumer and household products have a long history. It was around 1972, when W. Thomas Anderson Jr. and William H. Cunningham published seminal research entitled The Socially Conscious Consumer, that the role of the corporation in social and political matters came firmly up for debate. Prior to this point, a proactive corporate approach to social or environmental processes and impacts was viewed as an irrelevant undertaking and an unnecessary expense. Anderson and Cunningham note, “some [corporations] continue to see the requirements of profitability and of social action as essentially irreconcilable.” This research, and this attitude, precipitated the beginning of a fundamental shift in consumer attitudes—specifically, the rise of the “conscious consumer.” The conscious consumer (alternatively the “consumer citizen”) occupies a space where civic responsibility and consumerism intersect; they are citizens who will take their business to a competitor if that competitor’s handling of social and environmental issues aligned better with their own. With this rise, a new reality came to face corporate America: to dismiss the buying power of the conscious consumer was not only socially irresponsible, it was plain bad business.
Today the power of the conscious consumer persists—usually with a qualifier, such as socially-, ecologically-, or environmentally-conscious—and their concerns heavily influence which companies and products they choose to patronize. Recent search trends concerning the factors of production, especially as they pertain to household products, classify this relationship as a breakout topic (a “breakout” topic refers to a search term for which in a given timeframe Google has charted a search increase of greater than 5000%). This means that people, more than ever, are concerned with how the use and treatment of land, labour, capital, and entrepreneurship intersect with the production of their everyday purchases. Especially for people involved in the anti-consumerism and corporate social responsibility movements, these intersections will make or break a purchase.
These movements seem to have arisen from concerns about the structure of capitalist production in the twenty first century, one which is characterized by its excesses and unsustainability. The nature of a capitalist market is predisposed towards abusing factors of production, such as perpetuating massive wealth disparities, environmental abuse, unsafe working conditions and labour expectations, and a high barrier to entry for entrepreneurial pursuit. To counteract these abuses, the conscious consumer is drawn to purchase from companies that align with their personal political stances. They seek to “vote” with their dollars: they patronize businesses which prize the fair treatment of labourers and environmental consciousness and alert other corporations to the money “left on the table” by their lack of social awareness and responsibility.
With this strategy in mind, people have begun doing their research before purchasing household products and this is where this breakout topic gains so much steam. Especially with services such as Amazon readily available to millions of consumers, people face a greater variety of product options than they’ve ever encountered before. This makes habitual changes—like opting for a “greener” product—easy. Breakout search topics, such as those concerning factors of production and household items, are created by this confluence of social responsibility and great privilege in the consumer. While economies of scale necessarily engender the abuse of factors of production, it is these abuses which have made a proliferation of products (and access to those products) possible and, therefore, have made conscious consumerism possible. However, while the option to buy comparatively consciously is effectively created by economies of scale, it is precisely these economies of scale—and abuses of factors of production—which conscious consumerism seeks to undermine.
Despite this contradiction, the message is clear: while factors of production vis-a-vis household products are noted as a breakout search topic, so too is “social responsibility”. Related breakout topics are identified as “sustainability reporting,” “globalization,” and “morality.” Sustainable consumption is, perhaps more than ever, at the forefront of the consumer’s mind and those with discretionary income are opting to forego habitual purchases in favour of well researched products created by brands, or entrepreneurs, with whom they are socially and morally aligned. As Anderson and Cunningham described in the 1970s, it’s the businesses which seize on these keystone issues—the fair and humane treatment of labourers, respect for the environment, the fair distribution of capital, and an emphasis on grassroots entrepreneurship—that are able to capitalize on these trends and attract these socially minded consumers. With the information as to how a company or product functions literally at the consumer’s fingertips, as Anderson and Cunningham noted, “the cost to the firm of ignoring the social and environmental context in which it operates may not be profit; the cost may well be survival.”
1 Anderson, W. Thomas, and William H. Cunningham. “The Socially Conscious Consumer.” Journal of Marketing 36, no. 3 (July 1972): 23–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/002224297203600305.
2 Google Trends Public Data, captured 1 August 2019 at 3:13 PM from https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?geo=CA&q=Factors%20of%20production
3 McGregor, Sue. “Consumer Citizenship: A Pathway to Sustainable Development?” In Keynote. Hamar, Norway, 2002. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242734197_Consumer_Citizenship_A_Pathway_to_Sustainable_Development.
4 Google Trends Public Data, captured 26 July 2019 at 11:19AM from https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=social%20responsibility.
5 Google Trends Public Data, captured 26 July 2019 at 11:19AM from https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=sustainability%20reporting.
6 Google Trends Public Data, captured 26 July 2019 at 11:19AM from https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=globalization.
7 Google Trends Public Data, captured 26 July 2019 at 11:19AM from https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=morality.