What motivates consumers to make ethical choices such as buying clothing not made in a sweat shop, spending more money on fair-trade coffee, and bringing their own bags when they go shopping? According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, ethical consumption is motivated by a need for consumers to turn their emotions about unethical practices into action.
"Advocates of ethical consumerism suggest that consumers should consider the environmental and human costs of the products they choose, but unfortunately only a small number of people in North America consume ethically on a regular basis while most consumers just look for good deals and ignore the social impact of the products they buy. Why are some consumers willing to spend time, money, and energy on making more responsible choices?" writes author Ahir Gopaldas (Fordham University).
After analyzing dozens of websites of advocacy groups and companies driven by ethical mission statements, and conducting at-home interviews with people who identify as ethical consumers, the author identified three common emotions driving ethical behavior—contempt, concern, and celebration.
Contempt happens when ethical consumers feel anger and disgust toward the corporations and governments they consider responsible for environmental pollution and labor exploitation. Concern stems from a concern for the victims of rampant consumerism, including workers, animals, ecosystems, and future generations. Celebration occurs when ethical consumers experience joy from making responsible choices and hope from thinking about the collective impact of their individual choices.
Advocates of ethical consumerism should consider the role of emotions in motivating consumers to make more responsible decisions. For example, anger can motivate consumers to reject unethical products and concern can encourage consumers to increase charitable donations, while joy and hope can lead consumers to cultivate ethical habits such as participating in recycling programs.
"This research has critical implications for advocacy groups, ethical brand managers, and anyone else trying to encourage mainstream consumers to make more ethical choices. It is simply not enough to change people's minds. To change society, one must also change people's hearts. Sentiments ignite passion, fuel commitment, and literally move people to action," the author concludes.
Journal of Consumer Research