Does the consumer really care?

By Marylyn Carrigan

For some years now brands and firms have spoken to consumers about taking responsibility for the impact of their consumption choices by using mainly rational, factual arguments, when in reality a more emotional connection is needed. The problem with the rational arguments about supply chain abuses, environmental degradation and sustainability is that they ignore the joy of consumption. Goods play an important symbolic role in people’s lives; if an inexpensive carrier bag would transport our personal effects, why do we choose a costly Prada handbag? Researchers know that most consumers, pressured with the concerns of everyday living are unlikely to be making conscious moral decisions over every single product or brand bought. Over the years our research has shown that consumers take a more flexible and often inconsistent approach to shopping, as they try to balance the complexities of personal values and daily life. The products we consume add to our sense of identity and worth, our creativity or social standing, and what we don’t buy says just as much about us as people. Sometimes we shop hedonistically, sometimes through love, sometimes through guilt, and it is these social aspects of consumption that are harder for people to relinquish.

As more choices enter our shopping – Should I buy local? Organic? Green? Fair trade? Conflict-free? – understanding what will influence responsible consumer preferences is a priority for business. The lack of definitive evidence about whether consumers care enough about responsible business behaviour to translate their interests into actual purchase behaviour doesn’t help. A recent report from the Food Ethics Council discussed how many businesses feel there are insufficient incentives to adopt sustainable practices, and possibly even strong disincentives to do so. This inevitably makes some firms unwilling to get too far ahead of the consumer in the sustainable business debate.

What’s in it for me?

Our research suggests that if firms want to persuade consumers to consume more ethically, they need to understand why they consume at all. To get people to shop more responsibly you need to show how this connects to the everyday cares and concerns that are part of their lives. So it is not a case of labelling people as ethical or unethical consumers; it is more about finding out what matters to people and appealing to the things they care about that are often already embedded in their daily consumption practices. Inevitably some types of consumption and certain products may lend themselves better to ethical marketing initiatives than others. So for example, it has been easier to get people to use recycled paper (little extra cost, no more inconvenience, quality retained) than it has been to get them to buy ethical clothing (more expensive, less choice in style/products). This also presents different responsibility challenges for those marketers with complex, fragmented supply chains, such as jewellery or clothing compared to transparent, short supply chains such as wood or bananas. Our research also shows that people change their consumption behaviour for different reasons. Some people boycott Starbucks because they disagree with Starbucks’ tax evasion; others may prefer to support local coffee shops and avoid generic, ‘glocalized’ brands. The reality is that responsible consumption is not just about an individual being kind hearted or selfless; other subtler motivations are usually involved. This means any boycott or ‘buycott’ campaign is more likely to succeed if it combines appeals to consumers that are both self-regarding and ‘other-regarding’ i.e. show them something that’s in it for them as well as for others. When we studied jewellery consumers we found that people are interested in responsible jewellery sourced from transparent and traceable supply chains as long as they don’t have to sacrifice high quality, originality, competitive prices and good design. What we can take from this is that consumers are not rational actors responsive to logical appeals. Their consumption is deeply embedded in cultural routines and habits, and they don’t want to give up the things they enjoy and value. So - does the consumer care about responsible business? What our research and that of others suggests is that they do care, but they want the brands to do some of the hard work and make it easier for them to make responsible choices.

Beyond business as usual: choice edit?

Many of the harms that occur upstream and downstream in supply chains are triggered by business and marketing decisions, putting the responsibility on firms to change their current practices to reduce the harm. This duty of care stems from the fact that firms are socially and economically connected to the problems of their supply chain partners and customers, and so they have the power to intervene. Responsible business and consumption requires a change to how we behave collectively and personally; businesses need to challenge our entrenched values, perceptions, habits and the way we think. There is increasing evidence that altering consumer behaviour will require changing the environment of action, rather than changing people’s minds . This means businesses need to deliver better ‘choice architecture’ by providing an external environment that leads consumers to be ethical by default, and steers them away from harmful consumption choices. Intel’s commitment earlier this year to ensure that the minerals in every Intel microprocessor will be conflict-free represents an example of an infrastructural change towards more responsible supply chains. Yet, it is worth remembering that while under pressure to act responsibly firms won’t always be rewarded for their efforts by customers purchasing their products; responsible business does not necessarily translate into responsible consumption.

Professor Marylyn Carrigan: Centre for Business in Society Jewellery, CSR and SMEs