Ethical consumer choices: what’s stopping us? by Gordon Renouf

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Most of us say we want to make consumer choices that advance a value or interest we care about. Commonly this is to purchase products or services that have positive impacts on issues such as the environment, fair trade and human rights and animal welfare. Other values-based or ‘socially responsible’ choices range from support for locally made goods, to choosing a product from one country rather than another because of involvement in an international conflict.

 

Ethical consumerism is not new; it has successfully changed producer behaviours and government policy for centuries. The 18th century English consumer boycott of sugar and rum from slave plantations in the West Indies was a significant part of the successful campaign to outlaw slavery in the UK and beyond. In our times, industry acceptance of the Tasmanian Forestry Agreement is at least in part driven by international customers looking for certified sustainable forest products.

 

Traditional market research often claims the majority of consumers are solidly behind pro-environment or fair trade consumer choices. But it’s obvious that consumer behaviour falls short of what would flow from that research, and this ‘intention-behaviour gap’ calls out for explanation. Market research surveys of this sort typically ask simple questions such as whether the respondent would pay 10% more for a fair trade product . As Devinney and Augur note, there’s an obvious ‘right’ answer, and this creates a bias.

 

So are we out-and-out lying to market research companies? Not necessarily.

 

One hypotheses is that when we answer such a question, we are being the person we want to be. We provide the answer that matches our self-image. But in day-to-day life, we face a whole host of competing considerations that get in the way of our idealised self, and we make the choice we say we will less often, or not at all.

 

A more fruitful line of consumer research focuses on our deeper values and attitudes; these change more slowly than our opinions and behaviours. Research by Mobium using a mix of qualitative and quantitative techniques has repeatedly suggested that the vast majority of Australians hold values and attitudes consistent with ‘wanting to do the right thing’ (more than 90%). More than half hold concerns strong enough that they either regularly make consumer choices in favour of ‘community and planetary health and sustainability’ (around 12%) or ‘feel highly conflicted’ when they make trade-offs in favour of their lifestyle at the expense of sustainability as they often do (about 41%).

 

Instead of spending time bemoaning the gap between what we say and what we do, Ethical Consumers Australia (ECA) has been set up to focus on ways to overcome the barriers that people face in making consumer choices consistent with their values. These barriers include price, convenience, perceived and actual product performance, transparency and trust in claims, and social context including positive or negative peer pressure. Our aim is that the many motivated Australians will soon face fewer trade-offs between their desire for products that meet all their other needs and desires, and their need for a sustainable future and desire to live up to their values.

 

ECA’s first project, Otter, is a fortnightly e-newsletter that contains tips to help consumers identify opportunities to make changes in their buying habits. In the latter part of 2013 ECA operated Checking it Twice a service that provided gift advice for the 2013 festive season.

 

Future projects will use web-based technologies to leverage the collective wisdom of people whose intentions and values favour responsible consumer choices to overcome other barriers such as concerns about the in-use performance of products with ethical features, the social barriers to take-up of ethical consumer choices and the desire to link ‘doing good’ to

 

At the time of the boycott of slave plantation sugar, information was slow to move around and there was a lot less of it. Today there’s the potential to know what is ‘really going on’ in the supply chain much more quickly, just as it’s possible to garner the wisdom of the crowd about whether an ‘ethical’ product performs as well or better than alternatives.

 

Gordon Renouf is Chair of Ethical Consumers Australia whose mission is to make it easier for people to make consumer choices that are consistent with their values.

Sign up to Otter, the free fortnightly newsletter that features actionable information about consumer choices that are better for the environment, fair trade and human rights, and animal welfare. Get involved at otter.org.au.

 

This is an edited version of an article first published by the St James Ethics Centre in Living Ethics in December 2014.

 

References:

 

Mobium Group 2012, Green Market: State of Play: Living LOHAS 4

Auger and Devinney 2007, ‘Do What Consumers Say Matter: The Misalignment of Preferences with Unconstrained Ethical Intentions’ Journal of Business Ethics 76, 361–383

Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, 2012, ‘The impact of changes to native forestry on Tasmanian communities’ Diversifying Tasmania’s Economy: Analysis and Options—final report

http://www.regional.gov.au/regional/tasmania/diversifying-tasmanias-economy/part4-impact-of-changes.aspx

 

 

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