Countless anecdotes and surveys suggest many consumers will purchase sustainable products and services and at great premiums. But anecdotes do not apply widely, and surveys are poor predictors of actual consumer behaviours.
There is a lack of conclusive, empirical evidence that consumers will pay more for socially responsible products or services. Indeed, research seems to assume they will not, as consumers will buy responsible products only if “quality, performance, and price are equal” (Deloitte 2008). And yet, research also suggests that the number of consumers most interested in socially responsible products is growing across the world (Globescan 2007).
Despite this knowledge gap, there are some things we do know. This systematic review on socially conscious consumerism, by Dr. June Cotte and Dr. Remi Trudel, synthesizes 30 years of research on whether consumers are willing to reward firms for their positive sustainability actions either by changing their behaviour or by paying a price premium. From a broad search of 1700 academic and practitioner articles, we selected 91 articles, based on a variety of quality and relevance criteria, to summarize the knowledge in this area.
A Model for Socially Conscious Consumerism
Cotte and Trudel develop and present a model for socially conscious consumerism. This model illustrates the factors that influence consumers as they consider socially conscious consumerism.
Designed primarily for academics, this systematic review also describes:
- how consumers behave when faced with trade-offs
- social and environmental attributes considered in purchasing decisions
- differences in socially conscious consumerism across geographies, industries, products, and brands
- remaining research needs
Differences across Geographies, Industries, Products, & Brands
There is insufficient evidence to conclude whether there are differences across industries, products and brands.
With respect to geography, what we know is based almost exclusively on research with North American and European consumers. These groups, taken together, comprise 90% of the consumers studied in this area. Although the evidence is lacking, there are apt to be large cultural and, obviously, economic reasons to assume that people in developing nations will not respond the same way.
Future Research on Socially Conscious Consumerism
The dominant way in which socially conscious consumption is researched has been through survey research. This is a problem as consumers do not always act in the way they say they will. Newer methods, including forced-choice experiments, experiments where consumers believe they will be paying their own money, and field experiments using scanner or other sales data, would be better, as they move away from relying on selfreported behaviours.
Future research should use personality variables, not demographic variables: they predict behaviour better, especially the more closely they are tied to the domain of interest. That is, values and attitudes are more important to whether someone will buy a socially responsible product (and maybe pay more for it) than age, income, etc.
Access the executive report for useful tips on how businesses can close the attitude-intention-behaviour gap with consumers. Managers and senior decision-makers in marketing, strategy and finance will find the report particularly relevant.