June 18, 2012, by Rob

Can we shop for a better world?

This year’s ICCSR conference dedicated a track and Special Issue to this topical question, with specific reference to the inconsistencies in ethical consumer behaviour. In interviews, consumers often express a profound concern for social and environmental issues and identify how they will carry their attitudes into the stores (buying eco, fair trade, organic – or even lowering their consumption altogether). However, evidence suggests that these attitudes fail to consistently transpire into the content of shopping baskets by the time consumers reach the checkout.  Call it a ‘words-deeds’ gap or perhaps a ‘social desirability bias’ – i.e. where interviewees profess their ethical credentials freely in the context of the interview room with little impact on what they actually will do in reality (away from the eyes and ears of the interviewer). Actually, our question was more about why can’t consumers shop for a better world.

This event – drawing academic, practitioner and students from shores near and far- was framed as an opportunity to consider perspectives that could be brought to bare upon this contradictory phenomenon in consumer ethics. Over the course of the conference, the track generated a number of themes (summarized below), some of which elaborate on the reasons why ethical attitudes fail to transpire into ethical behaviour (i.e. why a gap?), some which indicated a possible bridging or closing of this gap, and others, delving deep into social theory and critical scholarship, outlining the socially constructed nature of this ‘fictional and largely imagined’ gap. When all the excitement of the conference had passed (and I don’t exclude Jeremy Moon’s powerful after conference dinner speech on the ‘Origins of Robin Hood’ from this excitement), the track chairs Dr Michal Carrington, Dr Andreas Chatzidakis and myself, summarized the key themes in this area as follows:

(1)    Gap or No Gap: Is there an ethical consumption ‘attitude-behaviour’ gap?

–          Some identified with the notion of a gap and sort to understand the factors influencing this attitude-intention-behaviour disparity. Shaw, Hassan & Shui reviewed the literature to find minimal and mixed evidence of  the intention-behaviour gap, concluding that the difficulty in measuring behaviour underpinned the disparity of studies in this space.

–          Duckworth acknowledged a ‘gap’ but saw it as irrelevant to the development of policy towards the mainstreaming of sustainable consumption behaviour, resting upon the concepts of commitment and incentives as more effective (than attitudes) mobilisers of sustainable consumption.

–          Others such as Longo et al., Davies, and Merino et al. saw the ‘gap’ as a construction that actually inhibits a broader understanding of consumer contradictions. More radically, Bradshaw and Zwick perceived the ‘gap’ as a rhetorical construction propagated by capitalist frameworks.

(2)    Who is the Ethical Consumer?.

–          A mixture of psychographic, demographic and sociological perspectives to understand the ‘ethical consumer’ as an individual and their contradictory consumption enactments.

–          Sociologically, Pereira Heath viewed consumption contradictions through the lens of identity transitions, Carrington & Neville saw these contradictory consumption enactments as a reflection of the broader identity fragmentation of corporate actors. Shaw and Newholm viewed ethical consumers through the lens of ‘caring’.

(3)    Connections and Contexts: interpersonal perspectives.

–           There was a movement away from viewing the contradictory consumption enactments of ethically-minded consumers as isolated acts of rational and sovereign actors, towards the perspective of social actors embedded within interpersonal institutions, cultures and communities; e.g. Longo et al. , Pereira Heath and Carrington & Neville.

In the end the track sessions did more to problematize the question ‘Can we shop for a better world?’ than it did to solve any gap in ethical attitudes and behaviour. It also raised a number of novel questions (typical academics!) for instance, as to whether or not contradictions experienced in ethical consumer behaviour were also features of other types of ‘embedded’ consumption behaviour? Whether the social context of our everyday lives makes it difficult to behave like ‘ethical robots’ – processing wide amounts of information in order to screen ethical products from ‘irresponsible’ ones? Or whether we should burden the consumer with the responsibility for issues that corporations should be assuming in the first instance? I very much look forward to receiving the research papers generated from this fresh discussion! 

 By Dr Rob Caruana, Lecturer in Business Ethics at the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility.






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