Until recently, many dismissed the market for ethical goods and services as a niche. That is no longer the case. Fairtrade’s global annual sales topped US$9 billion for the first time in 2017, growing at 8%. The UK’s Ethical

Consumer market report for 2018 revealed strong growth in key categories: ethical clothing up 19.9% and ethical food and drink up 16.3%. Opportunities for sustainable goods and services are booming. So too is the ability of online consumers to find such products and to ‘look beyond the label’ – an action, more than any other, that is coming to define the conscious consumer. There is now no shortage of apps and sites like Betterworldshopper.org and Good On You to assist them. Yet, in this crowded space, how does a brand create a lasting relationship with ethical conscious consumers to engender a fierce loyalty to an outstanding sustainable product or service? The answer lies in intertwining stories – the companies and the consumers. But cocreating stories is far from easy.

From a consumer perspective, individuals usually reference trends – such as the UK website RetailWeek’s top six ethical trends of 2019: plastic free produce, plastic-free packaging, compostable carrier bags, plant-based foods, natural fabric clothes, and clothing resale and recycling schemes. Incorporating these trends into your product or service offering requires creativity. For example, by deploying the psychological mechanism of ‘chunking’ – translating a broad trend into executable actions – e.g. “use our paper straws”, or “buy our branded, re-usable coffee cups”. However, such moves can be copied – beware the Red Queen! – perhaps enjoying short-term distinction but falling short of true differentiation.

It is extraordinarily difficult to achieve differentiation on the basis of so-called ‘credence’ attributes – claims that cannot be directly assessed by consumers. Certification and quality marks might help to elevate credence attributes to the level of search but without readily accessible evidence, credence claims and the stories behind them the risk of being perceived as ‘fairwashing’.

Moreover, consumers rarely have the time or the frame of reference to understand and process ethical information place in front of them. For example, do consumers see a product line with more than 30% recycled plastic as good or bad? Actually, most see it as bad, which suggests that recycling has to be all or nothing. This is a stark reminder that consumers – whether ‘conscious’ or not – generally think in terms of categories. By contrast, the task of establishing the credence of the multifaceted sustainability claims made by individual brands is overwhelming for most of us. A better strategy is to involve conscious consumers in the story of your brand – shifting the pendulum from ‘credence’, and beyond ‘search’ and into the domain of ‘experience’ attributes.

It is no accident that farmers markets are growing exponentially in the USA, with the more successful markets emphasizing interactivity. For example, farmaid.org Homegrown Village allowing visitors to watch and participate in the process of making a dye bath with plants. Visitors get to wear their experience. Similarly, the 25,000 members of the Tesla Owners Club of Norway, the world’s largest such Facebook group, are highly active relating their experience stories, for instance, discussing in impressive technical detail the carbon footprint of EVs versus combustion vehicles. There are many steps along the road to building enduring relationships with conscious consumers but credence as experience and a story is the most powerful combination. Pursued intelligently, a brand can travel with a consumer towards an ever-deeper consciousness. A brand and its co-creators can shift to awareness and practice of anti-consumerism; valuing maintenance, reuse and sharing over new purchases.

A step further might be collaboration in political activism to shift regulatory agendas towards a more sustainable planet. ‘Cocreation’ with your customers may just be a ticket out of the Red Queen’s world.