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Ethical Consumerism: Code or Craze?

“There’s far too much packaging there – there’s no way I’d buy that.”

This was one of the first comments in a group discussion that took place a few days ago, as eight people gathered round a tiny air freshener nestling in a cardboard box and plastic wrapping. All the participants ardently took up the subject of the product’s effect on the environment: How on earth would they be able to recycle the various components of the packaging? Did the product contain non-biodegradable chemical pollutants?

Had the group taken place a year or even a few months before, it is far less likely that so much of the conversation would have been devoted to this subject. In 2005, concerns over waste push themselves to centre-stage while more conventional discussion topics such as the finer details of the pack’s colour scheme and the respective merits of embossed lettering versus flat evoke noticeably less enthusiasm.

It is clear that there has been a conscious shift from the materialism that ended the twentieth century to a raised consciousness of ethicality for the new millennium. This reveals itself in the concern that people consistently demonstrate regarding the ethicality of products, the way they are marketed and the companies responsible for them.

But where has this altruism come from? Partly from an increased awareness of where and how products are manufactured or grown. Partly from a growing sense of one’s place in the bigger picture and the role consumers can play in shaping manufacture and retail practices. Media reports showing the plight of banana growers in the Windward Islands, terrorist acts broadcast in real time and images of ice caps melting before our eyes all make global issues personal and people feel personally responsible.

Following the Heart or Following the Crowd?

One of the great strengths of qualitative research is its ability to identify behavioural trends. But it also mines consumer thinking for a deeper understanding of the motivations that drive this behaviour, providing the consumer’s-eye-view that is so important for on-track business strategies. Two people who display the same concerns and similar behaviour may in fact have wildly differing motivations — meaning the trigger to action itself will be different. Understanding why people exhibit certain attitudes enables organisations to shape their offer in a way that activates this trigger — and secures a sale.

In terms of ethical consumerism, two very different types of ethical consumer have been identified through qualitative research: ‘Ethical- Hardcores’ and ‘Ethical-Lites’. Each of these groups has very different motivations and to address them at all similarly would be tantamount to commercial disaster.

It is a sign of the times that I was recently asked to research reactions to a website that provides detailed information on specific companies’ social, ethical and environmental policies. The Ethical-Hardcores I interviewed, who are prepared to research companies thoroughly before buying from them, see ethical consumerism as a way of life, a code to which they must adhere whatever the personal sacrifice. Green to their roots, at the very least they are devoted subscribers to Greenpeace magazine. They will stand for hours in the pouring rain to protest against the latest human rights violation. Not in their wildest dreams would they own a car and they wouldn’t buy a coffee from Starbucks for all the Fairtrade tea in China.

It is not surprising, then, that the Ethical- Hardcores resent what they see as the mainstreaming of ethical consumerism, devaluing the ethical policies that govern their everyday lives. They belittle the gestures of those who classify themselves as ethical consumers because they buy organic vegetables, wear hemp trousers and recycle their wine bottles, yet will happily drive to the bottle bank and, in the same trip, buy a pair of trainers put together in a Philippine sweatshop. In the eyes of Ethical Hardcores, these half-hearted ethical consumers merely want a version of ethical that is easy to incorporate into their lifestyle. A version of ethical that has its foundations firmly planted in the materialism that they are not yet ready to have wrenched away from them. For them, green is the new black, an accessory that symbolises their desire to do good in some way, even if they still can’t resist that shiny new gas-guzzling four wheel drive in which to run their kids to school and back each day.

Beware Greenwashing

Being ethical means questioning the policies of all businesses and authorities that people buy into on multiple levels. How does the company treat its staff? Does it support, however indirectly, military regimes or slave labour? Does it have a transparent financial policy?

The more serious ethical consumers are already asking these questions and demanding honest answers. Consequently, companies and organisations face a future where their conduct is scrutinised to a degree hitherto unimagined. Just as consumers themselves are picking and choosing products, businesses too must consider the integrity of their own practices and suppliers. Open to greater scrutiny, the definition of ethicality becomes all the more difficult to pin down. Would a truly ethical company not only deliver products and services that are ethically sourced, but also boycott any brands they feel are not ethical, down to the mobile phones their employees use and the uniforms they wear?

However, unlike Ethical-Hardcores, Ethical-Lites will not spend hours carefully researching the brands they buy. Rather, they are satisfied with a brief statement or symbol on packaging that reassures them they are making the ‘right’ choice. In this kind of consumer climate, there is a genuine fear from Ethical- Hardcores that ‘greenwashing’ — whereby companies make misleading or vague claims of ethicality — will become easier for businesses to get away with.

Organisations have a real chance to tap into this growing trend by appealing to consumers’ altruistic side while still providing the products and services they desire. Organisations must take ethicality seriously by examining their policies and communicating them clearly. And like any organisation that relies on persuasive marketing to secure its investors, governments are no exception.

Whether it’s the public as consumers or the public as an electorate that is the target, hard cash or the vote as the coveted prize, ethical issues are an increasingly powerful force in the way decisions are made. Just as consumers are turning away from companies that do not deliver ethically, they will be turned off by political parties that do not place ethics at the heart of their manifesto.

Collective boycotting and ethical choices can result in untold effects on global economy and the continuation of unethical practices, but it is still the minority that believe it can personally do any more than ‘their bit’. A government that takes a large chunk of this responsibility — be it by developing a public transport system that will entice drivers away from their cars, taking real, decisive action against global warming or placing sanctions on organisations that profit from slave labour — will be matching their agenda with that of the voting public.

A Craze?

Some people may fall off the ethical bandwagon once that image of destitute fruit growers has slipped from their mind or their desire for a fragrant bathroom outweighs their urge to recycle. But all the signs are there that consumers are feeling more and more compelled to choose the more ethical option when they can do so. Ethicality is slowly becoming less of a craze and more of a code and businesses, governments and other organisations that wish to remain in tune with their target audience and communicate to it in a way that appeals to its needs should monitor this transition carefully.

Qualitative research has been, and will continue to be, instrumental in monitoring the trend. People will vote with their feet, whether they’re walking into a supermarket, a virtual marketplace or a polling station, and the choices they make once they’re inside will depend hugely on how ethical the options are. An organisation’s success is determined by its values being in line with those of its investors; to ignore the motivational insights delivered by qualitative research will be to misalign communication and to guarantee failure.

 

Charlotte Parkinson
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005