Pondering the ethically minded consumer

Source: Flickr/ Putneypics

Source: Flickr/ Putneypics

A recent Mintel survey of 1500 UK consumers explored people’s views on the ethical claims made by food and drink companies. Concerns about animal welfare topped the list. Below are some of the concerns, ranked according to importance to consumers (As I do not have access to the full report, the following is taken from Mintel’s website and report brochure. I do not know the exact wording of the questions and response options):

  • meat coming from animals which are looked after well (74%)
  • a company that guarantees the ingredients used in its products are responsibly sourced (60%)
  • a company that guarantees good worker welfare (57%)
  • a company that guarantees to improve the environment (42%)
  • a company that guarantees to limit its carbon footprint (32%)
  • a company that guarantees it has not avoided payment of its taxes (30%).

Almost three in four consumers (72%) remarked they expect food products to meet adequate ethical standards without having to pay more for them, and half (52%) said they would stop buying products from a company if they found out it was acting unethically. Just over a third (37%) thought ethical standards were compromised in low-priced food. And over two in five (45%) said that buying ethical groceries makes them feel good about themselves.


  • just one in four people is confident the extra money paid for fair trade goes to producers
  • over half of organic buyers observed it’s too expensive to buy regularly.

Finally, one in six consumers (17%) said that meat grown from animal cells, also called lab-meat or in-vitro meat, is a good solution to help feed the world.

A May 2015 Gallup poll in the U.S. also found that people are concerned (“very/ somewhat concerned”) about animal welfare:

  • Animals in the circus (69%)
  • Animals used in competitive animal sports or contests (68%)
  • Animals used in research (67%)
  • Marine animals at amusement parks and aquariums (62%)
  • Animals in the zoo (57%)
  • Livestock and other animals raised for food (54%)
  • Household pets (46%)

Almost a third of people who participated in this poll (32%) wanted animals to have the same rights as people.

So it’s not surprising that many companies now use a sustainability and/or animal welfare label as part of their marketing (I have written about this here).

Source: Flickr/ Gemma Billings

Source: Flickr/ Gemma Billings

Attitude versus behaviour

But do attitudes translate into actual behaviour? Do ethically minded consumers walk their talk? It appears that’s not always the case. Researchers have identified an attitude-behaviour gap in ethical consumption.

I looked at several studies to gain an insight into this phenomenon. So, what are the factors that lead to this gap, how can it be explained? The short answer is that there is no consensus among researchers. Or, as one research group concluded after reviewing existing studies,

The literature is, therefore, extensive, complex and contested.

Too extensive and too complex to summarise here. Hence, just some food for thought. Below is a summary of two articles that I picked randomly. The first, by Bray and colleagues, provides a review of the literature on the attitude-behaviour gap, together with the results of the authors’ own focus group research. The authors identified seven key factors that impede ethical consumption:

Price sensitivity — Consumers care more about price than ethical values, in particular in regard to food and other frequently purchased items, as well as items where the price difference between ethically branded and conventionally produced items is large. However, price is a lesser issue for locally produced foods.

Personal experience — Consumers may not recognise the ethical consequences of their purchasing choices. Negative stories in the media affect purchasing decisions much more than positive stories. For example, people who had generously donated to the 2005 Tsunami relief later read that the money did not reach those in most need. They switched their ethical purchasing behaviour from Fair Trade goods to local produce, where they felt their money was making a greater difference.

Ethical obligation — Individuals see the relevance of personal values to ethical purchasing and want to make a difference. But although they feel the obligation to “do one’s bit”, they also see many reasons why it is too difficult to always be an ethical consumer. People’s perception of what is ethical varies, and while some people believe their ethical choices make a difference, others are convinced their ethical choices have no impact.

Lack of information — Many people feel they do not have sufficient information to make ethical choices. Thus, avoiding unethical products or companies exposed in the media is easier than proactively seeking out information.

Quality perception — Some people perceive Fair Trade branded products as lower in quality, while others find that some ethical products taste better. Also, people feel that food produced in an unethical way would not be harmful, because government regulations ensure food safety. Overall, this study found in whatever way the quality of ethical food was perceived, this influenced purchasing behaviour.

Inertia in purchasing behaviour — Brand loyalty is a strong obstacle to changing to an overtly ethical option. People accept these attachments to brands, although they are not necessarily considered ethically correct.

Cynicism — Some people feel that retailers’ ethical claims are just another marketing ploy. Many people involved in this research believed that most of the extra premium they paid did not reach the end beneficiary and that much of it was intercepted by corporate or governmental organisations.

Interestingly, many participants in this study described post-purchase feelings of guilt if they were aware that they had not made the ethically optimal choice. However, they also tended to suppress their feelings of guilt by expressing doubt whether their purchase would have actually made a difference.

Source: Flickr/ Tony Webster

Source: Flickr/ Tony Webster

The second article presents a model that seeks to explain motivations for responsible purchases. Antonetti and Maklan identify four types of responsible purchase:

Altruistic purchase — Consumers interpret this type as an altruistic choice aimed at helping others or the environment. It is perceived as private and mostly motivated by personal ethical beliefs.

Socially responsible purchase — Consumers acknowledge their social responsibilities but still frame the decision as a self-interested choice in a private situation. The responsible alternative is selected if it maximises the perceived benefits to the consumer.

Conspicuous responsible purchase — Social reputation is at the centre of this type of motivation. Consumers buy responsible products to acquire the associated social benefits. Although these benefits arise from the product being perceived as altruistic, the motivation is self-interested.

… as you might want to buy your Calvin Klein because it makes you feel better … in the same way this product would make you feel better because you’re doing the ethical thing.

Political purchase — A political purchase is one that is public, based on responsible beliefs and framed as an altruistic choice. This type of purchase is motivated by support for social causes and personal gain is secondary. It is different from an altruistic purchase because the behaviour is lived publicly and seen as part of a collective experience that can lead to political change. It is about supporting a political cause and a sense of consumer empowerment.

…it is like voting and every time you spend … every time you spend is like voting for the world you want really.

Below is an illustration of Antonetti and Maklan’s model:

A motivational typology of responsible purchases. Antonetti & Maklan (2015), p. 64

A motivational typology of responsible purchases. Antonetti & Maklan (2015), p. 64

 Will things change?

The gap between ethical purchase intentions and actual consumer behaviour has been widely studied. We can say with confidence that it exists and that different studies have come to different conclusions as to the causal factors for this gap.

I found both articles contributed to my understanding of the topic. The barriers identified by Bray and colleagues make sense, though I was somewhat surprised by the strength of brand loyalty they found. The model presented by Antonetti and Maklan provided further insight into understanding the motivations behind consumer behaviour.

Source: Flickr/ G-lish Foundation

Source: Flickr/ G-lish Foundation

But could things be changing? Will an increase in people concerned about the welfare of animals and the planet make this attitude more mainstream and influence companies to pay greater attention to ethical production of food and other consumer goods?

In Australia, ethical investing is on the rise (and helped by strong returns). As I’ve written elsewhere, the current level of production and consumption of meat is harmful to the environment and human health, and creates much suffering for the animals that end up on our dinner plates.

While Australia is still a top meat eating country, citizens and companies elsewhere have seen the writing on the wall. For example, Edeka in Germany offers advice on a vegan diet on its website, complete with vegan food pyramid. Edeka is a network of some 11,500 independently owned stores. Germany also has the world’s first vegan supermarket chain.


References and further reading

Bray, J., Johns, N., & Kilburn, D. (2011). An exploratory study into the factors impeding ethical consumption. Journal of Business Ethics, 98(4), 597-608.

Antonetti, P., & Maklan, S. (2015). How categorisation shapes the attitude-behaviour gap in responsible consumption. International Journal of Market Research, 57(1), 51-72.

Unfortunately, both articles are behind a pay wall. But here are a few suggestions for further reading of articles available in full text:

Michal Carrington, Ben Neville, Gregory Whitwell (2009) Ethical intentions, unethical shopping baskets: Understanding the intentions-behaviour gap of ethically-minded consumers

Timothy Devinney, Pat Auger, Giana M. Eckhardt (2011) Value vs. values: The myth of the ethical consumer

Judith Friedlander (2013) Selling ethical consumption

Deng Xinming (2014) Chinese consumers’ ethical consumption: Between intent and behavior

Isabella Maggioni, Francesca Montagnini, Roberta Sebastiani (2013) Young adults and ethical consumption: an exploratory study in the cosmetics market.


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