Friday, May 4, 2012

The bad attitude of the ethical consumer

The bad attitude of the ethical consumer is captured nicely by Devinney et al in their 2010 book The Myth of the Ethical Consumer.  To take just one example, looking at a data set comprising Hong Kong university students, Australian MBA students, and Amnesty International supporters, and splitting them into two groups – utilitarian, who assign value to their functional properties of goods, and anti-utilitarian, who are less likely to – there are remarkable differences in their attitudes to corporate social responsibility issues.  Amongst the anti-utilitarian, 98% claim they would take into consideration products that did little damage to the environment; 79% claim they prefer products with no animal testing, and 66% claim to take into account the human rights records of the country of production (the same figures for the utilitarian are 22%, 12%, and 7%).  These illustrate huge differences in claimed sentiments towards social responsibility of corporations and the potential for products and services that are produced in a sustainable manner.  Here, sustainability is used in its broad sense, to cover economic, environmental, and social environments and contexts.  Why then, for a product as banal as coffee, is the fair trade share below the 10% level in developed economics such as the UK (Barnett et al 2011)?  Or why are more engineered products such as electric cars so long in their take-off?  Even in China, empirical studies have touted the green attitudes and beliefs of consumers in wealthy cities such as Suzhou that have failed to live up to behavioral outcomes (Liu et al 2010).
It is like the story of the primitive Amazonian tribe, where one day one of its members are asked by a western anthropologist if it is true that the tribe believes they are all descendants of the snake?  The tribesman answers the anthropologist that of course they don’t believe that mumble jumble, but it is true that some of their ancestors did.  In our modern context, it is true that many of us don’t really behave in a sustainable manner, but we believe others do, and what’s more we believe that we should.  The conundrum is to be found in practices or trade offs.  I may very well believe that the running shoes I buy should be made without child labor, in good working conditions, where the workers can collectivize if they wish to, et cetera et cetera.  Yet at the register I vote with my wallet still, and I need to make trade offs between the functionality, the brand, the price, and a range of other factors. It is for this reason the values, beliefs and attitudes of the noble consumer are, on a daily basis, not realized in purchase decisions.  This is why ethical consumers have a bad attitude, because their attitudes are so misleading in that they give a false premise and promise to others.  While it is true that some people some of the time will buy in a sustainable manner, this is more often them extending a behavior from another field, say political convictions into consumption, rather than a truly realized ethical act.
Therefore it is potentially in production where sustainability needs to be realized.  Like traditional marketing, producers need to create sustainable practices through marketing might and finesse.  While there is still opportunity for abuse (e.g. even farmers involved in fair trade cocoa in Ghana are far form the simple peasant toiling year after year, close to oblivion were it not for UK consumers and Divine Chocolate – see Berlan 2008) marketing production break-throughs may be the most effective way in which to move towards greater sustainable consumption.  That is to say, to create the need and fetishize the commodity.

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