Profiling the ethical consumer. Part 1

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So far, I have written a couple of posts to illuminate various forms that responsible consumption may take as well various labels that help ethical consumers to identify products with desirable attributes. Since then, my mind has been preoccupied with the question as to whether what needs to be identified in the first place is… the ethical consumer him/herself? Having looked at relevant research, I realized that describing and profiling an “average” ethical consumer is not a trivial task indeed. So I decided to have a closer look at who ethical consumers are and how they are different from the mass consumption society as well as from each other. 

As one of the most comprehensive reviews (Tallontire et al., 2001) of the academic literature on ethical consumption and trade points out, most current knowledge and information about ethical consumers comes from commercial surveys and opinion polls. Although it’s been more than a decade since the publication of the review, the number of studies concerned with the profiling of ethical consumers does not appear to have significantly increased, so I had to rely on quite dated (but substantial and reliable) publications to complete my research task.

It is first intriguing to look at different classifications of ethical consumers. Thus, in a report produced for the Co-operative Bank, Cowe and Williams (2000) identify five main consumer clusters depending on their attitudes to and actions upon ethical issues. The largest section is comprised of consumers who have concerns, but lack action. The second biggest group, roughly 1/5 of the population, is more active in marrying ethical values with shopping practices, although provided that relevant information is easily available and the ethical issues involved are straightforward. Another fifth is formed of disinterested shoppers whose purchase decisions are dominated by the value for money factor. Consumers for whom products’ social and environmental profile is the governing influence on purchase decisions and who are willing to go the extra mile (both literally and metaphorically) to have their ethical considerations assured make up just around 5%. The last group of about the same 5% is formed of younger people who in the future may very well move to the very forefront of the ethical consumption movement (Cowe & Williams, 2000, p. 3).

An alternative categorisation is developed by Newholm (1999), who divides ethical consumers into:

  • distancers – those trying to evade mass consumption on the whole and consumption of unethical goods and services in particular;
  • integrators – those trying to incorporate ethical commitments into not just consumption, but all aspects of life;
  • rationalizers – those seeking to balance pleasurable consumption activities by isolated ethical practices

But the most eloquent descriptions of different types of ethical consumers are found in Roper/S.C.Johnson segmentation of environmental attitudes. Cited in Tallontire et al.’s (2000, p.15) review, it divides responsible shoppers into “True-blue Greens” (the most active ethical consumers, 11%), “Greenback Greens” (willing to pay premium prices for ethical products, 11%), “Sprouts” (embracing the philosophy, not the practice, 26%), “Grousers” (not influenced by ethical considerations, 24%), and “Basic Browns” (less educated or those skeptical about the power of consumer action).

More classifications of ethical consumers can be found in the literature, but these ones seem to provide a clear idea of how responsible shoppers may and do differ from each other based on the degree of their embracement of the philosophy and commitment to the practice of ethical consumption. Possible reasons behind such differences and actual and potential barriers to responsible consumption is a self-standing (and not less contested) topic, and although higher price of ethical goods is the most obvious explanation, other factors are also at play. Thus, lack of information is one of the major obstacles in consumers’ way to responsible shopping (Throne-Holst et al., 2008). A very interesting point is made by Zakowska-Biemans (2011), who argues that higher prices obstruct the sales of ethical goods in the countries where ethical food market is well-developed, while in the emergent markets ethical consumption is impeded by the limited availability of products and lack of information about them.

In the next post, I am going to continue profiling the responsible consumer. I will focus on the committed buyers of ethical goods whom I am going to try to identify and describe in order to create a portrait of those who, in the words of Cowe and Williams (2000, p.2) are “ready to put their money where their morals are”.

References

Cowe, R., & Williams, S. (2000). Who are the ethical consumers. Co-operative Bank, Manchester.

Newholm, T. (2000). Understanding the ethical consumer: employing a frame of bounded rationality (Doctoral dissertation, Open University).

Tallontire, A., Rentsendorj, E., & Blowfield, M. (2001). Ethical consumers and ethical trade: A review of current literature. Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich.

Throne-Holst, H., Strandbakken, P., & Stø, E. (2008). Identification of households’ barriers to energy saving solutions. Management of Environmental Quality: An International Journal, 19(1), 54-66.

Zakowska-Biemans, S. (2011). Polish consumer food choices and beliefs about organic food. British Food Journal, 113(1), 122-137.

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