Consumer Practices: Ethical or Flexible?

As consumers, it’s hard to know to what extent our purchases are ‘good’. Certainly, there are more and more ethical products coming onto the market that promise the warm glow of morality when bought, but it’s not always easy to know you are making the right choice for yourself and for those associated with the product.

Acting with one’s conscience in every buying scenario is impossible, even aside from other influencers such as budget, trends, brand loyalty, taste, etc., but how often do we prioritise sustainability? The extent to which consumers’ ethics are flexible is of keen research interest to Dr Moraes and Professor Carrigan from the Centre for Trust and Ethical Behaviour at Coventry University. “Consumers need to understand the positives of consuming ethically for it to become the norm,” they advise.

Dr Moraes and Professor Carrigan point out that consumers choose to outsource ethical purchasing decisions to the brands they buy from, placing the onus on retailers to put ethical products on their shelves. That singular responsibility is echoed in the media, with big brands taking the reputational hit for problems anywhere within their supply chain, driving their need for transparency using such tools as RTW’s to foster positive brand perceptions.

Even with the fear of bad press, retailers need a bigger push to take the ultimate action and replace existing stock with (often more expensive) ethical alternatives; they will only respond to consumer demand on a scale sufficient enough to imply their loyalty may be lost if they don’t change their offerings (and, by implication, their business operations to source, produce and manufacture ethically). 

Consumers, at one end of the supply chain, have the power to bring about positive change the length of the value chain.

Paradigm shifts, of course, come from action by more than just one group of stakeholders. As well as consumers, retailers, the media and campaigners, it is the support of governments with appropriate regulation that can drive change. So, although we have gladly seen that ethical spending has continued to grow over the past few years, as Barry Clavin, Sustainability Reporting Manager at The Co-operative Bank, formerly said: 

"Let's not lose sight of the fact that ethical sales remain a small proportion of total sales. Ultimately, over and above the efforts of responsible business and ethical consumers, sustainable solutions require a government committed to long-term intervention."

Ethical purchasing predominantly does, of course, come down to cost. The average buyer - already weighing up several competing factors when making purchasing choices - has to consciously override powerful forces, including financial concerns, in order to hand over the higher price for an ethical product – We are generalising here but ethical products often (but not always) cost more, and for good reason - all elements of the product, including the workers, are better looked after and there is more value retained at the end of the chain. Expecting the majority of consumers to entertain a higher price bracket, however good the intentions, seems too big a leap to make right now.

It’s worth taking a leaf out of Apple’s book here. The technology giant has proved time and again that, thanks to its colossal brand capital, consumers are willing to pay two to three times the value of the nearest competitor to buy an Apple product. Why? Because it’s ‘cool’ to be associated with the brand. Apple aficionados will argue that the operating systems, security, software and features are second-to-none, but undeniably there are now alternatives in the market which can strongly compete on these factors. Recent years have seen Samsung, Google and Windows claim increased market share despite the lack of crowds camping outside their stores on launch days.  

Apple still pull the most weight, however, and the lesson we can take from them is that brands which buyers want to associate themselves with can demand significantly higher margin for its products than its competitors. If ethical consumerism, as a brand, can become popular and mainstream, only then might we see shoppers orientating their purchasing decisions around ‘good’ products.

We need to spread the awareness around ethical products and enlighten people why it’s worth spending that little bit extra for a product that you know has been produced fairly and safely. When sustainability is woven into consumers’ existing buying considerations and their frame of reference, with brands and the media helping to promote this mind-set, it will be almost exclusively ethical products that we’ll see on the shelves.