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Is it Time to Retire the Word ‘Consumer’?

Isko brand director Fabio Di Liberto hates the word “consumer.”

Any talk about consuming fashion is misguided, he said at ReMode in Los Angeles this week, because it’s “not something you eat and defecate.”

Though perhaps not phrasing things as elegantly as one would like, Di Liberto brings up an interesting, nuanced point: Labeling a person as as “consumer” focuses on his role in the consumption of a product, subconsciously implying that that product provides finite use and value to that person. The underlying message, it would seem, is that a consumer is always ready to “use” more and more goods without any thought to the consequences—which could explain fast fashion’s stranglehold on the apparel industry.

This focus on consumption could indicate why the sustainable fashion movement isn’t further along than it should be. Instead, Di Liberto told the audience at ReMode, brands should think of people as “interlocutors,” or “those who take part in dialogue or conversation,” according to Merriam Webster.

That deceptively simple change in mindset could evolve how fashion brands communicate with their audiences. What would brands do differently if they viewed their customers not as people who just consumed their product but as individuals actively telling the brand what they love, hate and want? Whereas “consumer” implies a push-pull association, “interlocutor” denotes a relationship in which all parties are on equal footing, with equal contributions to the dialogue.

This is important because younger generations in particular are speaking up and making their opinions known—and expecting brands to be paying attention. “People are more interested in learning about sustainability,” Di Liberto said, and brands must be prepared to engage in that conversation, regardless of where they are in their sustainability roadmap.

Outdoor footwear brand KEEN has seen firsthand Gen Z’s interest in people and planet. When its UNEEKBOT mini mobile shoe factory stopped at a high school in Newton, N.J., sustainability was the first thing kids asked about, said Scott Owen, project manager of innovation, marketing and events.

“The next generation,” he said, “seems to genuinely care.”