Ethical Consumerism? Maybe not.
Updated: Jun 10, 2019
Consumerism rings negative. Do you remember it in a positive [change] context? Probably rarely.
It usually carries an undertone of ‘mindlessness’ [of how and what we consume]. The antidote to this ‘degenerate’ state these days is being, or trying to be an ‘ethical consumer’. It takes the edge off… Do we even know what ethics mean in this context, or how it comes to life?
In consumer [psychology] literature, there are various studies that cover marketing and ethical product consumption. Business and manufacturer ethics have been subject of discussion, namely those delving into corporate social responsibility, and consumers’ likelihood to be more discerning in their purchases if and when more information about the ethical practices of brands and/or businesses are made available to them.
In summary, evidence on [un]ethical consumer behaviour more often than not reveal the environmental associations rather than broader societal issues and implications (such as everyday deviant consumer behaviour or petty criminality). However there are more niche ethical consumption descriptions, which include drivers such as social justice, human rights, labour and skill exploitation with some focusing on animal welfare. Scholars revealed three factors which affect consumers’ perceptions of the ethical content of morally intense consumer situations for these scenarios: the location of [moral] issue, the presence of deceptions on the part of consumers, and the degree of harm caused.
When individuals face a situation containing an ethical dilemma with any of the above, they tune into their ethical rules; their moral intelligence. However, individuals need to identify a moral dilemma to be able to resist the temptation to behave/decide/purchase unethically, highlighting that there needs to be moral foundations for associated behavioural manifestations to occur. In other words, ethically responsible consumer behaviour results from attention to the morally salient nuances within a purchase situation; and whether it has environmental, human/animal or labour consequences beyond the consumer’s immediate surrounding. Almost all of these are the brands’ responsibility to exercise, communicate and disseminate as part of their marketing, of course. Huge opportunity for the trained eye and mind, I hear you say.
Consumer Ethics vs Morality
Unfortunately, in most literature on morality and behavioural ethics, the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ are used interchangeably – the situation is the same in the context of consumer psychology and behavioural or decision-making sciences.
Ethics and morals are not the same thing of course: ‘ethics’ cover the decisions based on individual character and subjective interpretation of right and wrong, while ‘morals’ cover the broadly shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong. In other words, ethics is a more individual assessment of values as relatively good or bad, while morality is a “community assessment of what is good, right, or just for all” working hand in hand with social responsibility and awareness. The “for all” point is crucial here, making consumer morality imperative to consumer psychology and behavioural sciences to understand the influences that shape consumerism.
Now that we know morality is what we *really* mean when we talk about the 'ethical consumer', I can dig further into why consumerism rings negative.
In this piece I’m writing, I will refer to morality (and immorality) of the consumer; because consumers can’t be ethical or unethical - broadly speaking - products’ manufacturing can be. However, consumers’ actions can be examined as part of the [im]morality construct.
Why immoral, and not amoral? Amoral in unintentional, it is when the action is neither planned nor salient regarding the resulting circumstances. Immoral, however, is when behaviour is predicated and based on the knowledge that the action taken is likely to have consequences to someone, or somewhere - but is chosen regardless. So intention is extremely important here in understanding and debunking the ethical consumer behaviour myth.
There are three elements that need to co-occur for consumer immorality to take place: a) someone or a creature needs to be harmed; b) the harm in question needs to have been caused by consumer action; and finally c) the action needs to be worthy of blame or moral deficit. Therefore, if someone buys something that harms the environment, other species, or those living elsewhere or future generations, then this act of consumption, in theory, can be held morally irresponsible/immoral. That is because the choice is made notwithstanding the outcome. There’s a hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing situation. Why is that though?
Out of sight, out of mind.
Researchers studied how consumers justify their immoral or non-normative behaviour or choices through denial mechanisms. If the victim (environment, labourers, animals) is not of close psychological/physical proximity to the agent (aka consumer), it simply might not affect the process of morally sound decision-making. The anonymity of the victim has a significant effect of the consumer’s anticipated responsibility/guilt because there’s reduced psychological ‘vividness’. Geographical and/or mental distance between the labourer/manufacturer and the end-consumer creates a strain on adopting or moral consumer choices. Think fur, think sweatshops, think products made from endangered species… Think child labour. We sometimes know the origin, and yet still choose to make the product ours.
So, if and only when a victim is tangible or visible, the implications of of [im]moral consumer behaviour act as a deterrent, which is a shame. Some consumers have the need to “see the blood flowing” to decide on an [in]action. This is a likely scenario especially in societies where ethical shopping practices are not the “expected” norm.
What’s interesting (and scary) is that previous research showed that consumers do not necessarily have conviction that those [potentially] affected by their purchases need to be helped (i.e. environmental, societal and animals affected by production practices). Not my circus, not my monkey... And still, there’s evidence that consumers actually would care about the consequences of their consumptions or purchases if they were given accurate and sufficient background information on the ethical, environmental and social responsibilities which they can own or refuse at the point of purchase decision. Brands have the power to shift this, without a doubt. But when this is not common practice, unfortunately price, convenience, quality and self image (and all other self enhancing qualities) overwhelm consumer decisions. So there’s a massive potential for corporate social responsibility and behavioural change if/when brands take affirmative actions to go the extra mile and campaign around their ethical production practices. It actually boosts brand loyalty, because consumers love to add good deeds to enhance their sense of self. Positive or altruistic associations give us humans a kick: when brands offer this ready-made to consumers, it’s nice and easy to grab and apply.
The common good is sporadic
My research back in the day aimed to contribute to the area of marketing ethics and practices from the lenses of consumer psychology and [dark] personality traits. I aimed to add new dimensions to strategies on ethicality and social/corporate responsibility by probing whether deviant personality traits and personal values increase the likelihood to ‘fall into’ the [im]moral behaviour loops. I found that social/personality deviance isn’t a significant predictor, looks like we’re all cut from the same cloth! We’re just wired to consume and add on to ourselves. Are we all immoral? Maybe some of us are plain amoral. We operate on what we’re given, but we have choice, so do brands.
Without sufficient understanding of human (and therefore consumer) psychology, motivations and/or beliefs, marketers will chase their own 'strategy tails' to effectively communicate their impact on the consumer realm beyond consumerism. Personality traits, values, cultural nuances and placement/context all massively affect the above... These independent variables are almost never mutually exclusive either. As one of my old bosses used to say, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Consumerism rings negative, because it was never utilised for the common good - properly.