Shoppers abandon ethical beliefs when it counts

When Andrew Charlton wrote in this month’s Quarterly Essay “The world is split between those who want to save the planet and those who want to save themselves” he made a powerful point, but maybe it’s not quite that simple.

I’ve blogged before about Australia’s poor uptake of FairTrade products. Having said that, significant improvements have been reported. However, a new piece of research by a Victoria University branding specialist indicates consumers’ unwillingness to follow ethical convictions through to the extent they actually make a difference. Senior lecturer in marketing Maxwell Winchester surveyed 8,000 shoppers (in the UK) finding that they were more likely to buy larger national brands than fairtrade when both were available.

“A majority of consumers will confess to having strong ethical attitudes and practices including boycotting, but the reality of their actual behaviour was shown to be otherwise,” Winchester said. “Consumers are not taking their ethical concerns to the checkout.”

Of course if more big brands go Fair Trade – so the choice doesn’t need to be made. But unless consumers vote for FairTrade products with their wallets it’s not going to happen…a case of chicken and free range egg?

PS it should be noted that Fair Trade itself has received its share of criticism over the years for being ineffective in its aims to improve the welfare of third world agricultural workers and rural societies. The debate continues…



3 Responses to “Shoppers abandon ethical beliefs when it counts”

  1. It’s easy to ignore the consequences of our actions when we don’t see them. The human and environmental horrors we support are out of our sight, hence acceptable.

  2. This is a very good point Mark and goes to the heart (no pun intended) of the ever-true adage that intentions don’t equal actions.

    Mobium Group (those people responsible for promoting the ‘LOHAS’ concept in Australia) have called this the “green gap”. Apparently their research indicates that while 90% of Australians say they are about the environment, only 10% actively choose green products at the checkout.

    Read more:

    I think there are a bunch of psychological factors here – from the desire to say ‘the right thing’ in research through to the persuasive allure of well-known brands and the losses-looming-larger-than-gains affect of actually switching to something unknown.

    It isn’t easy, that’s for sure.

    • Quite right about research bias. The other major factor is supermarket merchandising strategies – and the increasing emphasis on low-cost higher-margin own brands. In time some Fair Trade options might appear in own brand guise but I’m not holding my breath.

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