Myth of the Ethical Consumer
In March 2007, the website of SustainableBusiness.com heralded the findings of a survey from Tanberg research: “Consumers Ready to Reward Pro-Environmental Corporate Brands at the Checkout Line.”
More than half of global consumers (53 percent/representing 1.1 billion people) prefer to purchase products and services from a company with a strong environmental reputation.
Digging further into the survey of over 16,000 consumers in 15 countries, one sees that not only are people saying that they will pay more as consumers to save the environment, but that 80 percent want to work for environmentally friendly companies and nearly 60 percent have done “something” to reduce the impact of climate change. Although it is easy to pick out one or two surveys to critique but there are literally hundreds of such surveys appearing every year, many honest attempts to get a picture of public opinion, that provide confusing and conflicting results. For example, a Datamonitor (2005) survey of consumers found that “67% of consumers in the US and Europe claim to have boycotted a food, drinks or personal care company’s goods on ethical grounds,” yet a 1999 global survey found that only 40 percent had boycotted or “would consider boycotting a product.” The Australian consumer group Choice pegs the number at 30 percent. In the UK, a 2006 Ipsos Mori poll found that only 16 percent of UK consumers engaged in boycotts, yet a 1995 survey found that 60 percent of consumers said they would do so (but apparently had no reason to act on their intent in the intervening 11 years).
And these surveys and polls range across the “ethical” spectrum. Seventy-one percent of French consumers said they would choose child labor free products even if the prices were higher. Seventy-five percent of European consumers indicated that they would alter their consumption behavior to aid social causes. Opinion Research Business found that 86 percent of the British public would support their local grocery store introducing a range of household products not tested on animals. If we are to believe the Ethical Consumer Research Association, “20 per cent of consumers buy ethically all of the time [italics added] with up to 70 per cent of consumers reacting to things they don’t like. In the past, price and quality have been the only issues but ethics is now a firm third.”
However, despite the apparent wave of evidence that seems a veritable tsunami of consumer activism, the degree to which survey activists become consumer radicals appears to be overestimated significantly. As noted by O’Rourke (2004):
Evidence from approximately 20 years of “green consumer” campaigns indicates that people do think and care about ethical, social, environmental, and health concerns. Again, roughly three quarters of people polled in OECD countries call themselves environmentalists and report that they would purchase a green product over an environmentally problematic product. However, again only 10-12 percent of consumers actually go out of their way to purchase environmentally sound products. Debates continue on explaining this divide between stated preferences and actions.
The importance of the above confusion is that it hints at a deeper concern for us. If, as noted in Vogel (2005), “consumers will only buy an [ethical] product [if] it doesn’t cost more, comes from a brand they know and trust, can be purchased at stores where they already shop, doesn’t require a significant change in habits to use, and has the same level of quality, performance, and endurance as the less-[social] alternative,” then much of our discussion of consumer social responsibility becomes little more than consumption as usual, and the consumer most likely falls out of the CSR equation. It also hints that the positioning of the ethical consumer revealed by the likes of the above surveys is truly mythical in the sense that it is not only false, but even as a role model it appears to be unattainable and contrary to the natural tendencies of human behavior.
It is our thesis that social consumption -- what we call "Consumer Social Responsibility or CNSR" to distinguish it from the value laden "ethical consumer" -- is best understood as a manifestation of consumption more generally. However, there are distinct aspects of social consumption that suggest that standard models of consumption, and standard approaches to understanding beliefs and behavior, need to be modified, or that different components of these models and research approaches need to be emphasized. In The Myth of the Ethical Consumer we do not attempt come up with a unique singular model of social consumption, as we believe no such thing exists. Our goal is to point out how social consumption fits into our general understanding of consumption behavior, and the implications that this has for the veracity of the empirical approaches used. One of the true weaknesses in the field of “ethical” consumerism is the failure to recognize that different empirical approaches are embedded within different models of behavior, something understood more generally with respect to ethical decision making. If those models of behavior are invalid, or flawed in any degree, the empirical approach will be suspect, the data derived from such research questionable, and any interpretation of it open to criticism. By utilizing multiple methods across multiple contexts, we provide a more forceful and valid picture of social consumption behavior.
This has important practical and social implications, which we discuss throughout the book. Although NGOs and activists want to validate the veracity of their causes, doing so with flawed information undermines their credibility. For corporate executives and policy markers attempting to make product investment and regulatory decisions, flawed models and information (no matter how supposedly "sophisticated" are the statistics) will lead to inefficient and potentially socially damaging outcomes. The Myth of the Ethical Consumer presents a rethinking of what "ethical" consumption is that is based on unbiased scientific analysis. As such it is a guide for understanding how consumers can be simultaneously caring and callous and altruistic and individualistic in their consumption behavior. Our goal is not to destroy the nobility embodied in The Myth of the Ethical Consumer but to replace the divisive anti-consumer, anti-corporatist rhetoric associated with the debate over social consumption with a sensible scientific understanding of consumption behavior in a social context. As noted by Richard Dawkins (1995), “scientific beliefs are supported by evidence…. Myths and faiths are not.”
Timothy M Devinney, Pat Auger, Giana M Eckhardt