“Consumer ethics are, perhaps, best thought of as a luxury…[which is] not very appealing.” –Giana M. Eckhardt, Russell Belk & Timothy M. Devinney, Why Don’t Consumers Consume Ethically?
A few weeks ago, a discussion on ethical consumption and the influence of our own belief systems left me curious about the human behavior component to consumption. I did some research and stumbled upon a fantastic 2010 article: “Why don’t consumers consume ethically?” The article’s principle takeaway is that consumers create personal justifications for and engage in rationalizations of their behavior as consumers.
Can I get that in a language other than psychobabble?
We, as consumers, don’t always practice what we preach.
There’s a distinct gap between what we SAY about our ethical consumption habits and what we actually DO when we consume. Some of us even go so far as to publicly lie about our habits in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about the purchases we make in private.
Are you calling me a liar?!
Not a liar, a rationalist. Seriously.
Consumers use three types of rationalism to explain inconsistencies in their behavior: Economic Rationalism, Governmental Dependency, and Developmental Realism. They’re region-specific, too.
For example, Economic Rationalism, which focuses on internal cost/benefit analyses, is prevalent in American and Australian consumer cultures:
I can either purchase $6 organic strawberries from a farm down the road, which promotes buying local, or I can purchase $3 non-organic strawberries from Mexico and stretch my meager food budget a little further.
European countries tend to focus on Governmental Dependency:
If the government provided more ethical consumer choices, then I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not my consumption habits were ethical.
Primarily seen in East Asian countries, Developmental Realism focuses on the balance between ethical behaviors and economic development:
I can purchase these faux Nike sneakers for $3 so I have shoes, or I can go without because I don’t agree with the factory’s production practices and instead walk to work in my bare feet.
So are you telling me that I should be boycotting unethical companies?
Not at all. What I’m telling you is that your ethics belong solely to you. They’re intrinsic and to understand them, you simply need ask yourself why: Why do I buy faux designer bags instead of the real thing? Why do I buy sweaters made in Vietnam instead of ones made in Wyoming? Why do I purchase produce from the grocery store instead of the farm stand down the street?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Your personal ethics may be informed by external resources, but ultimately, they are formed by internal decisions. Pausing for a moment to reflect on your own personal rationales might provide you with a greater understanding of what motivates you as a consumer.
*The article I referenced is available in PDF format here.