Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


The myth of the ethical consumer

April 2011

Timothy Devinney, Pat Auger & Giana Eckhardt. Cambridge University Press. Paperback,  240 pages. £21.99, $36.99

Here is the antidote to all those surveys purporting to show that ordinary people take ethics into account when they are shopping.

The three professorial authors – two from Australia and one from the US – use copious amounts of research to demonstrate that such ‘survey radicals’ actually become ‘economic conservatives’ when they reach the checkout counter.

In the final analysis, they conclude, values and beliefs are overrated – and actually have little effect on ‘social consumerism’. By contrast, price and the functionality of goods are the main factors.

The professors argue, therefore, that the corporate search for the ethical consumer is a futile one, and that energy would be better spent persuading customers to buy ethical goods for other reasons – such as their quality, value for money, or trendiness.

While they don’t suggest the ethical dimension should be forgotten altogether, they do feel companies should revisit the way they play on the social and environmental credentials of their goods and services – and ought to at least consider pushing them into the background.

Much of this will hardly come as a revelation to those who have been in the CSR field for some time and may have been bashing their heads against this particular brick wall.

But the conclusions in this book and accompanying DVD are refreshing nonetheless, and may usher in a more sophisticated approach to the marketing of ethical products.

Peter Mason

Peter Mason | Global | Consumer attitudes


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