Could Less Consumer Choice Be A Good Thing?

Could Less Consumer Choice Be A Good Thing?

Blog by Wayne Visser

Part 8 of 13 in the Age of Responsibility Blog Series for CSRwire.

So you buy fairtrade or eco-friendly products, and you think that is a good thing, right? Think again. What if so-called ‘ethical consumers’ are the very ones standing between us a sustainable future?

I’m crazy, right? Maybe, but here is why I say it. By creating a premium-priced, niche market for ‘ethical consumption’, companies have been able to present a responsible front to the world, while leaving the vast majority of their products – which are, by implication, less ethical, less responsible, less sustainable – unquestioned and unchanged. At the same time, a small group of usually well-to-do Western consumers have been able to ease their conscience by feeling that they are making a positive difference.

Now let me be clear. I am not against organic or fairtrade or eco-friendly products per se. That would be insane. Clearly, there are groups of producers – usually poor farmers in the Third World – that have benefited from these initiatives. What I am against is the voluntary nature and premium pricing of sustainable and responsible products. The combination of these two factors has ensured that, with one or two exceptions, these products have never gone to scale. As compared with the total and ongoing impacts of mainstream shopping habits, ethical consumption, laudable as it is, has remained marginal at best and totally insignificant at worst.

The UK’s Sustainable Consumption Roundtable says, ‘we know that there is a considerable gap – the so-called ‘value-action gap – between people’s attitudes, which are often pro-environmental, and their everyday behaviours.’ We know the ‘value-action’ gap is partly explained by price and availability of alternatives, but there’s something else. Context matters as well.

To illustrate this, Timothy Devinney, author of The Myth of the Ethical Consumer, reports on a very interesting experiment he conducted while researching his book. The experiment took place at a coffee shop in central Sydney, Australia, over a period of several weeks. This coffee shop displayed a large and prominent sign indicating the products available, their prices and active specials. To this was added, quite obtrusively, another special, indicating: We have Fair Trade coffee! No extra charge. Just ask.

Here’s what he found. Unprompted, with only the sign to notify them of the availability of the ‘ethical’ alternative, less than 1% of customers bothered to ask for Fair Trade coffee, even though it was free. ‘When they prompted customers with a reminder that the ‘ethical’ alternative was available, the number of customers opting for the Fair Trade option rose to 30%. They then went a step further and took the customer’s privacy away: each time the clerk prompted a customer with the Fair Trade option, we ensured there was someone standing next to that person at the counter. In this situation, the number of ‘ethical consumers’ rose to 70%.

This is a hugely important lesson: If we want to achieve scalability of sustainable and responsible products and services, we cannot leave it to the passive choices of customers. Context is critical, and a little bit of peer pressure goes a long way. But do we really want to resort to public embarrassment to achieve scalability?  …

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Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2011) Could Less Consumer Choice Be A Good Thing? Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 24 November 2011.

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