ESA conference session on ethical consumption: different approaches with similar results

connect-20333__340One week after attending the ESA conference in Porto, I continue to reflect on the most important insights I got from the session on ethical and political consumption. The stream comprised seven presentations, including mine, which offered an exciting mix of theoretical and methodological approaches to the subject and helped to get an idea of the most recent developments in  research on ethical consumption.  Today I’d like to talk about some of the questions raised, perspectives taken and results suggested by the studies presented at the conference.

There seems to be a persisting academic commitment to providing potential explanations for the dramatic increase in consumer engagement in ethical shopping observed in the last couple of decades. While such quest is not new, the researchers offered some fresh perspectives on the issue. Thus, one of the projects approached fair trade consumption as a social movement while at the same time drawing attention to its market logic of attaching a price and applying specific standards to values that have not been previously for sale (fairness, reciprocity, equal and just relations). Another study sought to explain cross national differences in the consumption of fair trade in Germany and Switzerland by applying a sociologically informed quantitative methodology and an expanded rational choice theory. Both presentations raised interesting suggestions for future research in the area.

As different in methodological approaches and theoretical perspectives as the presentations were, one could unmistakably discern some similarities in terms of the impressions that they created about ethical consumption. Firstly, the effect of the retail setting on consumer perceptions of the “ethicality” of products has been numerously stressed. Thus, a study investigating ethical consumption at the point of purchase, highlighted the importance of the atmosphere created in a store for consumer experiences of ethical shopping. Interestingly, material devices such as posters and adverts intended to tell “the fair trade story” did not prove to have a significant effect on consumers. A presenter from Portugal, whose study sought to characterise the consumption of fair trade in the country through developing sociological portraits of local fair trade consumers (I absolutely loved this methodology!), also noted people’s tendency to extrapolate various ethical attributes from just one product quality (e.g. fair trade goods were commonly perceived as organic) which, of course,  can be very misleading. In my research, I also find many examples of the so-called halo effect wherein all goods sold in a shop with general ethical positioning are perceived as ethical by default, without consumers feeling the need to ponder about every individual product’s attributes. This raises important questions regarding consumer reflexivity, which appears to be the cornerstone of not only mine, but other studies on ethical consumption as well. Thus, the above mentioned study on ethical shopping at the point of purchase stressed the need to differentiate between active (those who consciously seek out goods with ethical attributes) and passive ethical consumers (those whose purchase of ethical products is dictated by structural factors, such as simple non-availability of conventional options, rather than deliberate choice).  What this suggests is that consumer reflexivity is a rather stretchable concept; it can be exercised by different individuals to a different extent and at very different points in the consumption process. This resonates with my own observations of consumers’ shopping behavior, which seems to be governed more by habits and routines than conscious deliberations on the part of the shoppers. As I mentioned in my previous post, I find reflexivity to play an important role in the process of choosing a consumption strategy and not so much at the moment of selecting a product in the shop.

Thus, there is indeed a lot to be learned from other people’s research, and my next academic destination – the Global Food Studies Conference in Italy in October – will hopefully present another useful opportunity to expose myself to an exciting variety of views and perspectives on the subject.

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