The simple tasks of dining out and buying groceries are becoming increasingly complicated and rife with hidden meaning.
The act of purchasing a product is more often being equated with political expression and ethical or environmental activism. The ease of thoughtlessly grabbing a quick bite to eat, making a run to the supermarket or buying a pair of shoes is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
Instead, buyers of Halloween candy — conscious that many cocoa beans are harvested via child labor around the world — may face an internal struggle when purchasing treats for their own children. And hungry diners need only look to Chick-fil-A, Denver's Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe and a pizzeria in Florida — to see how their decisions on where to eat are increasingly viewed as political statements in this heightened campaign season.
Consumers haven't had this amount of information since the days of growing and producing their own goods, which gives them greater power. On the other hand, this awareness can cause anxiety when weighing the impact of their purchase. Such awareness can lead to consumer paralysis through indecision, or apathy from exhaustion, experts say.
"The more overloaded a shopper is with messages, the more they stop seeing them. It is too much work," said Jon Hauptman, a partner at Willard Bishop, a retail-consulting firm.
Jackie Robinson and Amanda Davis are among the consumers trying to be more thoughtful about their purchases. The pair stand outside the Whole Foods Market in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood as they help Robinson's daughter select a pumpkin from an overflowing pile
"It's just a way to show your beliefs through your dollars," Davis said.
Both women said they care about the food they purchase and have ethical expectations of the products they buy, but both are open to "issue" persuasion as well.
But when it comes to issues — politics, in particular — other consumers say they're trying to steer clear.
Ted Shields occasionally eats lunch at Chick-fil-A in Aurora, not because of an ethical or political belief but in spite of them. The fast-food chain was embroiled in controversy this past summer after a comment by its chief executive regarding the traditional definition of marriage.
"It's not that I don't think about it — I just don't think I should judge a company based off of their politics," Shields said. "And, I mean, it's good food."
Chick-fil-A and similar politically tinged purchases are generally considered to be consumer activism, while the type of activism on display at places such as Whole Foods is viewed by experts as ethical consumerism.
"It's one thing to look at a list of ingredients on the side of a box and say, 'I don't want those things in my body,' but it's something totally different when you are making that decision based on a faith or belief," said George Deriso, consultant and professor at the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business at the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship.
Deriso sees consumer activism flowing from two very different sources — ideological and intellectual.
"The intellectual is much more malleable," Deriso said. "That's one where (they) can listen and consider and change their mind."
In many cases, companies that choose to advertise — even subtly — their beliefs take a risk on whether customers who don't necessarily subscribe to their beliefs will turn away. Shoppers at Forever 21, for example, walk away from its stores carrying bags with a reference to a Bible verse stamped on the bottom.
The problem, however, is when consumers don't know which products' messages to believe and which ones are only profit-seeking tactics thinly veiled behind a social cause.
"If I happen to know something about the organization that they are donating to, then that could have an impact on me," Shields said. "But other high-profile organizations ... are just big corporations, giving only, like, 10 percent to the actual cause."
Deriso says this brings up an important question about business models intended to cater to the trend.
"I think consumers must be very diligent before buying into those business models, whatever they are," Deriso said.
Businesses and their socially responsible models are clamoring to attract these malleable consumers. These businesses are, in turn, seeing a surge in cash flow from investors.
A recent study by JPMorgan Chase predicts that nearly $4 billion will be invested over the next year in what are known as "impact investments." These are defined as "investments intended to create positive impact alongside financial return."
"The findings are fairly low if you look at them compared to private investments," said Deriso. "But it's much bigger than it's ever been."
Experts agree that cause marketing and older forms of impact investing have been around since the early 20th century, but they recognize that something has shifted.
"Now, it is a genuine kind of movement in and of itself," Deriso said. "One that is exclusively concerned with putting money into for-profit businesses that have social impact at the core of their mission."
The coffee industry has seen a surge in businesses that place social responsibility at the core of company identity. There are numerous certifications that adorn coffee-bean packages, ensuring social standards such as fair wages, environmental protection and economic stability for rain-forest farmers.
Businesses are leveraging this trend in various ways — some better than others. Hauptman, who consults with food retailers, believes few retailers do this well.
"I think a big challenge among retailers is having a well-defined and disciplined socially responsible program," he said.
"Shoppers don't want to feel they have to pay an unfair premium to support a social cause — they will pay a fair premium, though," Hauptman said.
Robinson buys her meat, seafood and bulk-food items at Whole Foods and the remainder at King Soopers. She draws that line using her daughter's health as the dominant factor. For everything else that is ethically fuzzy to her, she simplifies the decision by considering the price.
"Your $50 here doesn't go nearly as far as your $50 there," Robinson said, contrasting the two stores.
Davis buys most of her groceries at Whole Foods but admits its because she is buying for one person and it is the closest store to her house. When she is standing in the grocery- store aisle, she has a simple solution.
"If they're all organic and fair-trade, I just go with the cheapest," Davis said.
But, as Deriso pointed out, this sort of methodical decision is something that can be sifted through with a series of simple questions. It is not so easy when it comes to political or moral controversies that fall into the ideological category of consumer choice.
Shields chose to eat at Chick-fil-A because he felt that the political backlash against the chicken-sandwich chain was not steeped in a logical dialogue.
"It's not right to ostracize someone for a difference of opinion," Shields said. "Every company's leadership has an opinion, whether you know it or not, and they have the right to it."
Whatever political line a business owner subscribes to, Deriso agrees they have a right to expression but recognizes it may not always be the smartest move.
"When they make mistakes, let's try to learn from them," Deriso said. "And then, when they repeatedly make mistakes, let's see how to change them."
Experts agree that there is massive, untapped potential for a more refined and developed approach to social consumerism in the marketplace. Ultimately, however, the success of socially responsible businesses must meet more traditional consumer standards.
"You might try it once based on the fact that they give back," Deriso said. "But if it's not a good fit for your taste, you won't try it again."
Navigating the world of ethical consumerism can be incredibly complicated as consumers consider not only price and quality of a product but also the way it was produced and executives' political views. Some products that are under scrutiny by ethical consumers:
Some coffees are touted as Rainforest Alliance Certified, which means the harvesting of beans didn't harm the habitat in which they were grown.
Beauty products have long come under fire for testing on animals. Many companies label that their products are free from such testing.
Fair-trade chocolate ensures that farmers received a fair price and prohibits slave and child labor in the harvesting of the cocoa beans.
The latest to be caught in the cross hairs as ethical consumers worry about companies that use genetically modified sugar beets as a sweetener.