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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

'Conscious consumerism' is a signpost at NY NOW

NY NOW's 'Conscious Consumerism' discussion

The topic of “conscious consumerism”—also called “ethical consumerism”—took center stage yesterday at Day Three of the NY NOW home/lifestyle/handmade/gift market trade show’s, Winter 2021 Digital Market Week.

With the guidance of moderator Amy Loewenberg, NY NOW’s manager of relations & partnership development, The WonderMart’s owner/CEO Perri Salka, and Packed with Purpose’s founder/CEO Leatt Rothschild, digitally took turns outlining their companies’ missions and business models in their inspiring “Taking a Stand on Conscious Consumerism” session.

After Loewenberg defined conscious consumerism as the business culture where buying practices are driven by a commitment to making decisions that have a positive social, economic and environmental impact, Rothschild spoke of the trend in that direction, using her own goal of bridging the worlds of business and “doing good” as a model.

Noting that her Chicago-based company is geared to embedding the act of “doing good” into the personal and corporate gift product it offers, Rothschild noted how historically, non-profit organizations were seen as the vehicle responsible for society’s doing of good things. Now, however, business itself “has the power to create a positive impact” throughout its employee base, supply chain, board members, and “anything it touches.”

Loewenberg actually dated the emergence of conscious consumerism to at least the 1970s, but noted that with today’s increased attention, it’s easier to seek out ethical products to support a cause, or entire communities.

In stepping into the socially-conscious business arena, Rothschild stressed the importance of communicating to the world what a brand stands for, and how it contributes to society, i.e., “what your giveback is”--as evident in everything from employee commitment to product packaging. She introduced the term “purposeful purveyors” in identifying her company’s product suppliers, all of whom likewise create meaningful social impact.

Packed with Purpose, said Rothschild, thinks of such purposeful purveyors as partners in assembling the signature gift boxes that the company is known for. In finding such partners, she suggested going to major trade shows like NY NOW and smaller regional ones, but noted that even in the current virtual world there are many opportunities.

Evoking the Black Lives Matter movement, Rothschild further advised “sourcing diverse product” from minority- and women-owned businesses—as Packed with Purpose is focusing on as a response to its customers’ demand. “Desk research,” she said, can go very far during the pandemic: “You’d be surprised how much you can find even if face-to-face [in-person contact] is lacking.”

Noting that “many purveyors are now coming to us,” Rothschild instructed those who choose to follow the socially-conscious business route to “ask a lot of questions” in ensuring that their purveyors in fact walk the walk. Those who have passed Packed with Purpose’s criteria are rewarded with promotional material included in gift boxes that inform recipients of their own purposeful endeavors.

Perri Salka, whose community-driven Brooklyn specialty gift shop WonderMart is stocked with handcrafted goods exclusively made by emerging New York State artisan brands, related her artist background—and knowledge of the business behind it—in presenting the background of her own emerging business.

With the goal of creating a platform for other artists to thrive, Salka launched WonderMart in 2018 with a roster of 25 artisans—all mainly found on Instagram. Initially worried that she could pull it off (“Inventory was piling up in my living room!”), she repped them at a dozen makers fairs across New York State, finding that there really was “a huge need for someone like me.”

Sure enough, by the end of her first year she was managing 50 artisan brands, running the business on consignment. But this year she put on “the Big Girl pants” in order to “push my business forward,” and is imminently opening a WonderMarket brick-and-mortar shop. To do so, she’s had to change her business model and raise her cut from the maker’s 65 percent take to a 50-50 split.

“It was a very scary thing to do,” Salka conceded, “but here I am now with 45 brands, and they’re more motivated than ever to be part of WonderMart.

Loewenberg noted that Salka also has business experience in the corporate world, and submitted that her example of “developing your passion into your own business, [which] in addition to fulfilling your aspirations, creates a poignant and vitally important social justice awareness” can be replicated by fellow aspirants.

Here Salka presented “the three pillars” of WonderMart: a “‘hyper-local’ habit” that is community-oriented and taps into Brooklyn’s thriving “Main Street vibe”; a “community commitment” manifested by monthly donations to organizations that fight for equality and justice, and supporting programs that work with underserved communities and aid frontline COVID workers; and acting as “allies in the face of diversity” via the Black Lives Matter movement—for which she created The WonderMart Guide to Meaningful Allyship.

“Its about being committed to being good,” said Salka, “and doing what’s right and putting your neighbors and people you work with first. It’s not just about me and my business and my profit. It’s about everyone, and everything my business touches.”

Salka lives in Brooklyn’s predominantly West Indian neighborhood of Crown Heights, “the epicenter of immense pain” last year during the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests.

“I’m such a small business, but it was so important for me [to do something] because of how diverse my roster friends are,” she said. Creating her Meaningful Allyship guide was a way of connecting with the community and “moving that needle forward.”

But Salka acknowledged that it “took a lot of focus away from my business,” and that committing to taking such action is something that not all businesses feel comfortable doing. But “at the end of the day,” she added, “we are all people, and we’re all just helping people, serving people, and interacting with people.”

“I am my business,” stated Salka. “Every penny I make goes right back into the business, and so being able to donate is just part of it—putting back into the business.”

“It’s a process for everyone,” said Loewenberg, applauding Salka for doing so—and saluting her for her bravery. Inspired by her story, she closed with a pull quote spoken earlier by Salka: “Actions are free.”

Making ethical choices in support of a cause or community is “where we can make our own difference,” Loewenberg concluded, urging attendees to “Take a moment to think about what we buy, where it comes from, and who we buy it from.”



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