Research & Insights

The Influential Power of the Ethical Shopper

People don’t always make ethical decision when they make purchases.

Even when consumers know a brand’s sustainability and labor practices, they continue to make socially irresponsible decisions and may go as far as to criticize those who make responsible choices, according to new research from marketing scholar Daniel Zane and his colleagues.

Published in the October 2015 Journal of Consumer Behavior, these results come from a series of experiments that asked hundreds of participants to evaluate products like blue jeans and backpacks and the purchasing behavior of other consumers.

In each study, participants saw information on both the look of the products, as well as its ethical background. For example, some jeans were listed as sweatshop-free or being made of recycled materials, while others were not.

Some participants were told that due to time constraints, they would have to choose one attribute to review.

Then, participants were asked to take part in a fictional marketing study that had them evaluate the behavior of fake consumers who researched things like delivery time and ethical information before making a purchase. The participants rated what they thought about these customers based on traits such as “fashionable,” “odd” and “attractive.”

The researchers found that participants who chose to avoid the ethical information judged the consumers who conducted ethical research more harshly than those who ignored it.

However, in another study, participants changed their attitudes after given a “second chance” to behave ethically – the opportunity to donate to a charity – before evaluating the shoppers.

Consumers are unlikely to choose the ethical route every time they are faced with an ethical decision.

“Our results suggest that consumers do want to behave ethically and feel badly about not doing so when their failure is highlighted by the actions of ethical others,” according to the researchers.

Journal of Consumer Psychology

Daniel M. Zane and Rebecca Walker Reczek, Ohio State University
Julie R. Irwin, The University of Texas at Austin

Posted: February 10, 2016
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