Ethical consumerism is touted as a powerful social movement capable of creating better business practices, but are the limitations of the marketplace significantly reducing its impact?
Despite scarcely getting a mention 20 years ago, ‘ethical’ products are now plentiful and commonplace on supermarket shelves. For seemingly every item, there exists a cleaner, greener, or more sustainably sourced alternative. Customers can now get the product they want without circumventing their morals in the process. Entire businesses have emerged on the back of the ‘ethical’, or ‘conscious consumer’, revolution – aiming products at consumers who tailor the majority of their purchases to the ethical significance of the product, not just its quality or function.
It has even become a marketing tool, with many businesses choosing to construct their entire brand identity around the needs of the conscious consumers they hope to attract. Symbols representing ethical organisations, and certifications advertising how the products are made, now have similar prominence on the packaging and advertising as the product itself.
However, despite its best intentions, ethical consumerism is extremely limited in what it can achieve. While supporting products that feature these certifications may make a small difference, ultimately, it is not enough to prompt widespread social change.
Social consumerism is based on the idea that the collective purchasing decisions of a group are able to influence the wider market. If enough people buy Rainforest Alliance coffee, for example, then companies will be forced to take notice of this shift in the market, and make higher ethical standards the norm. By reflecting their personal values in their purchasing decisions, a group can make the world a better place. But, unfortunately, the global market is more complicated than that.
Dr Terry Hathaway, a political economist at the University of York, suggested consumers do not necessarily have the power they think they do, with many broadly unaware of what they are actually supporting.
“We buy many, many different things over the course of a day, and the amount of information that you need to know to make the best choice, or even a reasonably good choice, based on these things is impossibly large. I mean, you start looking at supply chains. What things are manufactured in China that become feed stocks for certain things?”
Even seemingly simple products can be composed from a number of individual elements, and, inevitably, these components are sourced from a diverse range of suppliers and locations. While a customer may be confident they are promoting one positive action, there may be dozens of negative implications they support indirectly and unwittingly.
Hathaway said his classic example is the Fairtrade chocolate bar. While purchasing one may be considered a vote for supporting the fair payment of cocoa farmers around the globe, the customer is likely ignorant of the multitude of factors that went into its production and distribution. Finer details, such as the production of the wrapper, the working conditions of the driver who delivered the product, and the parent company’s other product lines, may not mirror the ethical standards the product itself promotes.
Another issue with conscious consumerism is the lack of clear feedback a company receives regarding the purchase of its product. Hathaway explained that, to a large company, a purchase is just a purchase, and the rationale behind choosing one product over another is often unknown.
“You could buy a car because it’s blue, but how the corporation or company understands that is a different thing”, Hathaway said. “You can purchase something for any number of idiosyncratic reasons, and all the company knows is that you purchased it.”
In order to encourage the production of more responsible products from companies, Hathaway suggested consumers might be better off making their ethical preferences known through responses to consumer surveys. However, in order for this to work, consumers would need to follow through on their intentions.
In most surveys, customers show a particular fondness for ethical and sustainable products. In Nielsen’s 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability Report, the company painted a seemingly straightforward picture of how customers value sustainability in their brands. Across 30,000 consumers in 60 countries, 66 percent of responders said they were willing to pay more for sustainable goods. The survey also reported people who were earning less were more willing to pay for fair-trade products than those on higher salaries; consumers who earned under $20,000 per year were five percent more likely to say they would pay a premium for ethical goods than those in higher wage brackets.
However, the startling reality is that, while consumers may be enthusiastic advocates of ethically produced goods, the majority of the time, they do not follow through on their intentions. Professor Timothy Devinney, co-author of the book Myth of the Ethical Consumer, illustrated his findings in an article published by The Conversation in 2011.
Devinney’s research showed people are far less likely to choose an ethical product if it lacks some core functionality. In another study, Devinney’s team proved people were more likely to choose an ethical product if they were prompted to, and had their privacy removed. For items that were the same price, 70 percent of people chose the ethical product when reminded of product ethics. However, if people were left to their own devices and given anonymity, less than one percent chose the ethical product.While customers may like the idea of conscious consumerism on paper, the majority are unwilling to bear the cost.
Despite these shortfalls, conscious consumerism can prompt some degree of market change, but only in specific products that have limited variables, like the recent push for consumers to choose cage-free eggs.
“An egg is an egg, and you can either buy this egg or you can buy that egg, and the differences are price and production methods that are all clearly laid out for you”, said Hathaway. “In those situations, I think the market can effectively communicate an ethical approach that’s good – an ethical approach as desired.”
Hathaway conceded that, in this case, it would only take a single level of abstraction, the purchase of mayonnaise for example, for the customer to be left in the dark once more.
However, another more significant opportunity for change is available to companies that are making purchasing decisions. Hathaway said, during the tendering process, companies have far more insight than the average consumer might.
“You’ve got an established social relationship there so you can, as a business, actually go around and say ‘look, these are our requirements, this is what we want, and what evidence do you have of that?’ – it’s a much more active way of relating to the thing that you’re buying from than when you go to the supermarket or when you buy a car.”
For individual consumers, partial ignorance may be the answer. Simply making purchases that ‘feel’ right is likely to have a positive impact overall, even if this impact is limited. Buying green energy, for example, is a clear sign of support for renewables, even if the working conditions of the builders constructing the turbines are unknown.
While not a completely pointless endeavour, conscious consumerism alone is not enough to prompt the widespread, substantial changes ethical consumers hope to achieve.