By Ivana Vidakovic
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a global resistance to ongoing racial discrimination, Ryerson students are using their consumer dollars as a form of activism.
Students are actively choosing to buy from sustainable and anti-racist brands that are Black, Indigenous and POC owned instead of larger mainstream corporations like Amazon that have been the subject of controversy.
Generation Z is often described as the most socially conscious generation. A study by McKinsey & Company shows that 65 per cent of Gen Z make an effort to learn the origins of anything they buy, and that 80 per cent of them won’t buy from companies involved in scandals. Ryerson students are no different—students have been choosing to withdraw their hard-earned money from companies that don’t align with their values.
For fourth-year human resources student Eryka Gallo, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have completely shifted her consumption habits.
Not only has she cut down on her spending dramatically due to job uncertainty, she also said she will be focusing on “supporting local businesses who were greatly impacted by the pandemic [and] shopping at places that have great diversity and inclusion practices.”
According to Ryerson marketing professor Joanne McNeish, it’s likely that certain emotional and mental components of the COVID-19 crisis are forcing consumers to think more deeply about the impacts of other major societal problems, such as the climate crisis and racial discrimination.
The magnitude of the pandemic’s effects is exposing the cracks in our systems as well as illuminating the devastating results when these cracks are met with prolonged ignorance and inaction. Public Health Ontario released a document in May detailing how the social determinants of health result in an unequal risk to COVID-19.
The document states that factors including “gender, socioeconomic position, race/ethnicity, occupation, Indigeneity, homelessness and incarceration, play an important role in risk of COVID-19 infection, particularly when they limit ability to maintain physical distancing.”
It also states that pre-existing social inequities in health and lack of access to healthcare increases the risk infection.
Shamya Phillips, a fourth-year social work student, was initially troubled by the realization that she may have been supporting companies with racist business practices for a long time. However, her new awareness has encouraged her to change her shopping habits.
Phillips now purchases from NaturAll Club, a Black-owned small business in her community that sells hair products. She says she feels that her money is finally going to a company that truly values her as a consumer—as opposed to a large corporation like Shoppers Drug Mart.
“Not only do I find the products much more suited for my hair, but I also feel better knowing my hard earned money is going towards people that value my business,” says Phillips.
The financial impacts of anti-racism protests and COVID-19 are significantly tangible in Canada. BNNBloomberg reported this year that shareholder investments in socially and environmentally responsible companies are spiking.
In 2020, the net inflow of investment into sustainable Canadian exchange-traded funds (ETFs) was $740 million, an increase of $598 million from last year.
These ETFs are made up of underlying assets (stocks, bonds, etc.) from companies with social and environmental priorities and are designed to track the performance of these companies. Stocks in these ETFs are then sold to investors.
McNeish also predicts that the economic downturn will force consumers to buy less, keep items longer and repurpose items they already have.
“For the next two years, price is going to be the most important factor in the purchase decision for most people,” she said. “However, companies that survive will be called to account if they have not also behaved in a consistently socially responsible way.”
Students are using this time to blend their activism with frugality, a win-win situation for students like Phillips.
“Starbucks produces mass waste, with all their one-time use lids and cups,” she said. “I‘ve chosen to boycott Starbucks and support small businesses in my small town of Orangeville, or make my own coffee and use my mugs, which has also saved me a lot of money.”
“It’s extremely vital to be wary of who I’m giving my money to and what that brand is doing with their platform when human rights are being violated”
Phillips has also stopped shopping at fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara due to their unsustainable and unethical business practices.
The fast fashion industry may also suffer in the coming years as McNeish said that consumers will be shifting to buying better quality items in smaller quantities. “Whether it’s online, or brick and mortar, the retail sector will decline.”
Consumer choices are more vital than ever for small and local businesses. According to Statistics Canada, 60 per cent of businesses with one to four employees and 56 per cent with five to 19 employees reported a 20 per cent or more decline in revenues due to COVID-19. This means that a number of small businesses will have no choice but to close down due to the decrease in revenues.
Sesiny Samuels, a third-year film student, said she is disappointed but not surprised at the amount of companies that have been recently outed for having a history of racism and discrimination.
“This reminded me that it’s extremely vital to be wary of who I’m giving my money to and what that brand is doing with their platform when human rights are being violated.”
Samuels says she is battling the task of boycotting Amazon, which she’s found challenging due to the convenience of the e-retailer.
“It can get tricky when you have companies that are easily accessible, like Amazon, yet are deeply problematic,” Samuels. “While it’s easy for me to immediately stop supporting and buying from a problematic company, it’s more challenging with Amazon – which is why I’m pacing myself on getting rid of that one.”
It’s important to note that sustainable purchasing can also be costly, and not every student has the option to opt for a more ethical brand rather than a cheaper one.
When considering the long-term effects of recent events on the business and consumer landscape McNeish believes the majority of the power lies in the hands of companies.
“Unless companies provide leadership on social issues, individuals, on their own, can make very little difference.”
That being said, Gen Z has considerable buying power. According to a July 1, 2019 update of the Ontario census, the estimated current population of Gen Z is over 2.5 million, with over 50 per cent of them entering the workforce.
This influx of Gen Z consumers entering the working landscape translates to an increase in new consumers who care deeply about social and environmental responsibility and will be choosing companies who align with those values. For the companies that don’t—the untapped potential will be their loss.
For students like Phillips, the path forward is clear: “I’m in a position where there’s no excuse for me to not be shopping sustainably with companies that are actively anti-racist.”