THE MYTH OF THE ETHICAL CONSUMER?

Professor Timothy Devinney

About the Author Asset 28

Timothy is the University Leadership Chair in International Business and Pro-Dean for Research and Innovation at the Business School. He has taught at universities across the world and is a frequent commentator on public events and social issues in the press and various media.

I was recently at an overseas conference where a host of presenters, mostly from government agencies, kept mentioning that corporations are increasingly dealing with consumer demands to address social issues and accommodate labour, environmental, and social factors into their product design and decision making.

I have been researching social consumption for more than 20 years and during this time I have been hearing the refrain year-in and year-out. I am amazed that if such demands are ever present, we have not seen a revolution in social consumption – interestingly none of the presenters at the conference could answer my challenge. The reality is that consumers are unlikely to be the vector by which corporations change, nor are they likely to be the key pressure point. ‘Ethical’ consumption has always been, and remains, a niche.

In the 1990s I was working with Amnesty International in Hong Kong and Australia and the question of ‘ethical’ consumption came up in some corporate panels. It was intriguing to me how reticent corporate executives were to take on the issue. Most characterised consumers as fickle. They also pointed out that they were more likely to receive meaningful returns on labour practices and environmental changes over ‘ethical’ product design.

Looking into this more deeply my colleagues and I discovered that almost all research on the topic was survey based. The most common work was known as the “attitude-behaviour” gap – the phenomena where individual stated attitudes do not translate into actual behaviour. We decided to study this further via increasingly complex and impact experimental approaches. This led ultimately to the publication of, The Myth of the Ethical Consumer (Cambridge, 2010) and a book currently in development on the pathways to corporate social responsibility.

Our initial research focused on trying to characterise consumers, to determine who was or was not ethical. This turned out to be fruitless. Our work consistently showed that the correlation between stated ethical positions and experimental outcomes was virtually zero. This did not change with country, age, gender, education, or personality. When we looked at actual purchases – either through field experiments or product sales data – the relationship was also nil.

Our work consistently showed that the correlation between stated ethical positions and experimental outcomes was virtually zero.

We also found that consumers rarely acted socially across the board. One of our most convincing experiments revealed that even when individuals supposedly purchased ethically in one context (eg when purchasing athletic shoes and focusing on labour issues) they did not purchase ethically in other product contexts (eg detergents, batteries or holidays).

We also found that consumers would not sacrifice an iota of performance or quality to purchase ethically. Our critics argued that the major issue was that consumers were uninformed; if they knew more they would act differently. To study this we did two sets of experiments, one study in a lab and one field based.

In the lab experiment we showed people informationally manipulated short documentaries. We discovered that accessing the information did not change consumer behaviour, but instead individuals were likely to cherry-pick the information that aligned with their decisions after the event in recall tests.

In the field experiment, our research showed that individual decisions were easily manipulated by the structure of the purchase occasion, and this was independent of how much they knew, or did not know, about the topic (in this case Fairtrade).

Overall, our research, and that of many others, reveals that broad based ethical consumption simply does not exist. What we have shown in dozens of studies is that context dominates ethics and that individuals are quite nuanced in how they incorporate social issues in their consumption. As we like to say, some people, in some contexts, for some products, at certain prices, will take ethics into account. Beyond that, there is little to argue that ethics has become anything other than a minor part of the consumers’ calculus.

 

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