The Myth of the Ethical Consumer

There’s no such a thing as an ethical consumer. Or a
socially responsible corporation.

Corporate and consumer social responsibility are hot topics in
industry, academic and policy arenas these days. Organizations and
policy makers are bombarded with international surveys purporting
to show that most consumers want “ethical” products. However, when
companies offer such products, they’re often met with indifference
and limited uptake.

It seems survey radicals turn into
economic conservatives at the checkout.

The problem is that discussions of corporate and consumer social
responsibility are premised on the logic of “doing well by doing
good,” otherwise known as the efficacy of ethical consumption.

This rationale suggests that companies providing socially
“better” products will be rewarded by enhanced consumer demand.
However, the reality is that consumers are more complex. 

“… roughly three quarters of
people polled in OECD countries call themselves environmentalists
and report that they would purchase a green product over an
environmentally problematic product. However, again only 10-12
percent of consumers actually go out of their way to purchase
environmentally sound products.

For evidence of this complexity, consider the following
conundrum: If “ethical” consumption is a prevailing and provocative
phenomenon, why do products marketed as such remain locked into

If doing good is a path to doing well, why did iconic “ethical”
corporations such as the Body Shop and Ben & Jerry’s have to be
subsumed into mainstream corporations so they could do “better”?
Why have mainstream corporations not utilized “doing good” as a
fundamental core competence or a competitive advantage?

In thinking about the role of corporation and consumer in
society, it is important we maintain healthy skepticism and ethical
neutrality, particularly in our scientific investigations.

For example, polls surveying consumer intention should be
treated with great skepticism because research shows people rarely
behave the way they say (or think) they will behave.

Poor theorizing and a blind willingness to accept confirmatory
survey information helps neither society, corporations nor
consumers.  Quick consumer surveys purporting to illustrate
how “ethical” consumers would behave “just if…” sound encouraging
but are likely to lead you down the garden path. 

Trust research that measures actual
consumer behavior and reveals what the consumer actually does when
making a purchasing decision.

My research shows that there is no such thing as the ethical
consumer: your organization is best to simply produce products that
are aligned with your target audience’s unique needs. That may or
may not include elements of “ethical’ production.

“Our goal is not to destroy the
nobility embodied in The Myth of the Ethical
but to replace the divisive anti-consumer,
anti-corporatist rhetoric associated with the debate over social
consumption with a sensible scientific understanding of consumption
behavior in a social context.”

target=”_blank”>Dr. Timothy Devinney is a management
scholar with degrees in psychology and economics and is
currently a Professor of Strategy at the University of Technology,
Sydney.  He recently published a book called href=””
target=”_blank”>The Myth of the Ethical Consumer.


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