'Conscious' Christmas shoppers put ethics first this year

Professor Jana Bowden
1 December 2021
Macquarie Business School


While rampant consumerism isn’t dead, shoppers have become environmentally conscious and more selective when it comes to gift giving. Macquarie Business School's Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, Jana Bowden, explains.

With all the hype and frenzy around the Black Friday sales and Christmas shopping, many consumers are searching for an antidote.

Perhaps a ‘slower’ Christmas built around conscious consumption, connections and presence, rather than materialistic presents, offers the antidote.

Australian consumers have collectively banked $140 billion in savings since the pandemic began due in part to decreased expenditure on big ticket items like travel. As a result, there is plenty of pent-up consumer demand and shoppers are expected to splurge this festive season. Australians are tipped to spend $59 billion in the pre-Christmas sales period alone. That’s up around 11 per cent on pre-pandemic figures and around the same as 2020 levels.

But times are changing.

The pandemic didn’t start an interest in sustainability and conscious consumption, but it did put it into overdrive. There has been an increasing shift towards mindful and ethical consumption as consumers seek to buy brands and products that reflect their own personal values.

Conscious consumers

Conscious consumers are on the rise. As a global market segment they are worth $US382 billion in the fast-moving consumer goods sector alone, up $US78 billion on 2020. Psychologically, they’re geared towards the ‘5 Rs’ – rent, reuse, recycle, repurpose, regift. Importantly, they are also interested in a 6th R – re-evaluating ethical, moral and value-based codes of conduct.

Tuned in: Younger people are not only shopping with purpose, they are shopping for purpose, says Professor Bowden.

Millennials and Generation Z consumers are leading the conscious consumer trend. They’re attuned to messages about how they can be more sustainable and how they can leave a lighter footprint on the environment.

They are interested in brands that deliver on social causes that matter to them and which actively demonstrate inclusion and diversity. They are driven by their deeply engrained sense of morality and they are clear about wanting their brands to give back to society and not just sell ‘stuff’ to make a profit. They are also willing to put their money where their mouth is, spending 10 per cent more on sustainable products. They are not only shopping with purpose, but they are shopping for purpose.

A survey by Kantar of 80,000 consumers across 19 countries found that almost 50 per cent  of consumers felt personally affected by environmental problems. One in five shoppers now say that they have adopted more environmentally friendly habits since the pandemic began.

Giving gifts that are founded in meaning, not materialism helps us to disengage from the marketing pitches, FOMO and herding at sales events.

Brands are capitalising on this opportunity by positioning themselves as sustainable and responsible citizens. They have realised that connecting with consumers through purpose pays. The Zeno Group found that consumers were four to six times more likely to purchase, protect, champion and trust a brand with a strong brand purpose.

It remains to be seen how much of a shift there will be away from material consumption and towards meaningful consumption in 2021. The timing and sentiment are certainly right for brands and consumers alike to think more mindfully this Christmas and to get into the spirit of ‘slower’ consumption.

Consuming mindfully

Consuming mindfully is about being more aware and connected to ourselves, to others and to the world around us. It’s about having a more compassionate understanding of what matters; it gets us off the treadmill of hyper-consumption.

Revolution: Millennials and Gen Zs are the largest group to purchase second-hand products, with 'newness’ identified as the least important attribute for fashion consumers. 

Giving gifts that are founded in meaning, not materialism helps us to disengage from the marketing pitches, FOMO (the Fear of Missing Out) and herding at sales events.

For instance, consumers have become aware that more needs to be done to combat the increasing amount of clothing waste being sent to landfill and the impact of fast fashion.

Australia has the unfortunate distinction of being the second-highest consuming nation of textiles per person in the world, after the US. The Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment estimates that every Australian acquires an average of 27 kilograms of new clothing per year and that 23 kilograms of clothing ends up in landfill annually.

Fifty-seven per cent of consumers have changed their lifestyles to lessen their environmental impact and 60 per cent have gone out of their way to recycle.

The department says “a circular economy for textiles is critical to achieving a sustainable textile industry in Australia”. As well as protecting the environment from unnecessary waste, “a textile circularity provides a significant opportunity to drive innovation, better design, create new Australian jobs and recover valuable resources from items currently going to landfill”.

The good news is that there has been a circular economy revolution. In fact, ‘newness’ is identified as the least important attribute for consumers in the fashion category with Millennials and Gen Z being the largest group to purchase secondhand products.

The concept of consumer engagement with sustainability has deepened during the pandemic. McKinsey’s Consumer Sentiment on Sustainability in Fashion report found in 2020 that 57 per cent of consumers have changed their lifestyles to lessen their environmental impact and 60 per cent have gone out of their way to recycle.


The ongoing trauma of the pandemic with its restrictions, lockdowns and variant threats have left many consumers feeling ‘pandemic burnout’. Consumers desperately want to get back to a sense of normality and return to their pre-pandemic lifestyles.

Our place: There’s a palpable appetite for ‘giving back’ to society, including through buying from local businesses, says Professor Bowden.

The timing is perfect for gift buyers to start to think beyond traditional gift giving.

The pandemic has reset views and values around what it means to give gifts and when we should give them. There is a heightened need for affiliation. And this translates to a search for deeper meaning, engagement and connectedness with everything and everyone surrounding the consumer right now.

While FOMO or the "fear of missing out", is a phenomenon that many consumers are familiar, with especially during major sales events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, JOMO, or the "joy of missing out", is becoming far more commonplace.

JOMO involves a ‘refusal’ to engage in hyper-consumption, and to instead engage in meaningful consumption. JOMO is fundamentally about getting back to the roots of the festive season which are fundamentally about connection over consumption. In fact, 78 per cent of Millennials are regularly opting for JOMO.

Giving back

Gifts in the current pandemic-induced context have expanded in meaning. They are more than just a simple act of love or thought for those around us.

Associate Professor Jana Bowden who is the Department of Marketing in the Macquarie Business School.

New views: Professor Jana Bowden (pictured) says the timing is  perfect for gift buyers to start thinking outside the square.

The motivations behind gift giving are now more diverse, more emotional and often more altruistic. In a pandemic world, we can use gifts to express empathy and to bridge the social, emotional and even physical distances that restrictions and social distancing impose.

There’s a palpable appetite for ‘giving back’ to society, for helping others and for supporting important causes.

Giving non-traditional gifts such as charity donations, and even shopping locally to support the businesses that create and maintain our sense of belonging and connection to community, are being prioritised.

These gifts ‘give’ in multiple ways: they are a gift to the receiver in that they are thoughtful; they are a gift to the business or charity in that they are supportive; and they are a gift to the giver in that they convey their own personal values and priorities.

It’s definitely acceptable these days to make something yourself as a gift imbued with personal meaning and investment. Even repurposing something, regifting, buying secondhand, recycling or upcycling are on-trend gift ideas for the 2021 festive season.

Jana Bowden is Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at Macquarie Business School.


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