The participants knew a great deal about the issues, and agreed that good practices involving labor, the environment, and intellectual property are important to society. But most did not consider such issues to be relevant to them personally. Indeed, they often stated that someone other than the individual consumer should be responsible: the law (“the government should protect the environment”), the competitive market (“it’s too bad, but all sneaker companies do this”), the companies themselves (“advertising should let us know about this”), or the overall system (“I cannot do anything, so why bother thinking about it?”).
Another key finding that refutes conventional wisdom on this topic is that most people will not sacrifice product function for ethics. When faced with a choice of good ethical positioning and bad product functionality or good product functionality and bad ethical positioning, individuals overwhelmingly chose the latter. They revealed an astounding reluctance to consider ethical product features as anything but secondary to their primary reasons for purchasing the products in question. “It would take some kind of catastrophe to make me care,” said one respondent.
Contrary to other research that has typecast ethical consumers demographically or by their responses to surveys of values, we find little difference between people who take into consideration social aspects of products and those who do not. For example, it has been commonly assumed in the popular media that Europeans, with their strong tradition of social democracy, are more socially aware than Americans bred on notions of self-sufficiency and individualism. However, we found only weak support for this idea. Simplistic notions about differences influenced by gender, education, income, culture, domicile, basic values, and so on proved similarly unfounded. It is often assumed that individuals from emerging-market countries are significantly less sensitive to social issues, being more concerned about economic development. Again, the reality is more complex; individuals’ responses were more nuanced. We found that although those from Germany, the U.S., or China might rationalize their ethical consumption (or lack of it) differently, the behaviors being justified are remarkably similar.
Proponents of ethical consumerism want to believe that people’s socially oriented choices are somehow different — perhaps made at a higher level of consciousness — from their general product choices. This is a delusion. Product ethics are more important only when individuals, comparing such ethics to all the other things that have value to them, determine that they are more important. And our research shows that for many people, this is seldom the case.
To some, this will sound like heresy. How can it possibly be that the cost of a bar of soap is more important than knowing that it won’t pose an ecological hazard? Whatever the moral merits of the issue, for many ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, the cost does matter more. Even a factor like the color of a running shoe matters more, to most people, than the conditions under which the shoe was made.
The emergence of a true ethical consumer base is a long way from being a reality. Although some consumers today do take into consideration the social aspects of their purchasing behavior and care about a company’s CSR policies, most do not care enough to pay a higher price. Looking ahead, however, social consumption may have the potential to become a mass-market phenomenon. In fact, we see a parallel between the current ethical consumer market and the early days of e-commerce in the mid-1990s. As Internet usage expanded and capabilities and security grew more sophisticated, consumers learned to integrate technology into their daily lives. Now, Amazon and myriad other online destinations have made e-commerce an integral part of the shopping (and banking) culture. Socially responsible consumption today is a nascent skill. Individuals do not necessarily know how to translate descriptions of ethical activity into judgment. (For example, what is a “good” labor practice? How much of a difference does an “ethical” sneaker purchase make in improving labor conditions?) Nor do they have any reason to trust in the verifiers, which are often the corporations themselves, or biased third-party organizations.