Function Trumps Ethics in Consumers’ Minds

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This study examines whether consumers are willing to make tradeoffs to purchase ethically. Authors conducted experiments with students in Hong Kong and Australia and Amnesty International supporters. Labor practices or animal rights and the environment were the social product features studied. Results show social product features can affect a person's buying intentions, but that most will not trade off functionality.

Background

Some research suggests consumers will pay for ethicalness but this has been examined mainly via case studies or survey results; consumers have not been forced to make a tradeoff between social and functional features. This research asks whether social product features (or lack thereof) impact consumer purchase intentions, especially when they interact with functional features. Further, does information about the social attributes change the intent to buy?

Findings

  • Social features may make a difference but only once functional features are satisfied. Even "socially conscious consumers" (the segment identified as those for which all social attributes impacted purchase intentions) also valued function and price.
  • Ethical features make a difference for at least some consumers. Shoes with ethical features made up 88 percent of total purchases for athletic shoes by the Amnesty International supporters.
  • Some social features are more important than others. Of the social attributes studied, avoiding child labour was more important than working conditions, living accommodations and minimum wage; for soap, animal testing was more important than using animal by-products or being biodegradable.
  • Providing information like a backgrounder, on social attributes does not change intent to purchase.

Implications for Managers

  • Good social attributes can't make up for poor functional attributes. Socially conscious consumers exist but they also place great value on functional attributes. For example, in the case of athletic shoes, the likelihood that someone will purchase the ethical product with a premium of $4 without compromising functionality is 62 percent. However, with the same premium and having to sacrifice functionality the probability drops to 20 percent.
  • Point of purchase signage on a social feature may not increase sales.

Implications for Researchers

The authors note the sample was not representative; it would be interesting to see what proportion of a representative sample would choose products based on ethical attributes. A more realistic experiment may observe what people actually buy, or force them to buy something rather than asking which they would buy.

Methods

The experiment asked subjects to decide whether to consider and purchase 32 hypothetical soap bars or athletic shoe products (with different functional and ethical attributes and prices). Some were also provided background information on the social attributes (e.g. a news story). The social attributes examined were (for shoes) child labour, minimum wage, working conditions and accommodations; (for soap) biodegradable, animal testing and animal byproducts. Researchers used 3 groups: Amnesty international, Hong Kong undergrads, and MBA students in Australia. In total 1253 people were studied; 445 instruments were returned.

Source

Auger, Pat, Devinney, Timothy M.,  Louviere, Jordan J., & Burke, Paul F.  (2008). Do social product features have value to consumers? International Journal of Research in Marketing, 25(3) 183-91.

Summarized by

Pam Laughland & The NBS Team

  • TDevinney

    There’s no such a thing as an ethical consumer. Or a socially responsible corporation. Corporate and consumer social responsibility are hot topics in industry, academic and policy arenas these days. Organizations and policy makers are bombarded with international surveys purporting to show that most consumers want “ethical” products. However, when companies offer such products, they are often met with indifference and limited uptake.

    It seems survey radicals turn into economic conservatives at the checkout. The problem is that discussions of corporate and consumer social responsibility are premised on the logic of “doing well by doing good,” otherwise known as the efficacy of ethical consumption. This rationale suggests that companies providing socially “better” products will be rewarded by enhanced consumer demand. However, the reality is that consumers are more complex.

    This dilemma is evidenced by the conundrum that if “ethical” consumption is a prevailing and provocative phenomenon, why do products marketed as such remain locked into niches? If doing good is a path to doing well, why did iconic “ethical” corporations such as the Body Shop and Ben & Jerry’s have to be subsumed into mainstream corporations so they could do “better”? Why have mainstream corporations not utilized “doing good” as a fundamental core competence or a competitive advantage?

    In thinking about the role of corporation and consumer in society, it is important that we maintain healthy skepticism and ethical neutrality, particularly in our scientific investigations. For example, polls surveying consumer intention should be treated with great skepticism because research shows people rarely behave the way they say (or think) they will behave. Poor theorizing and and a blind willingness to accept confirmatory survey information helps neither society, corporations nor consumers. Quick consumer surveys purporting to show how “ethical” consumers would be “just if” sound encouraging but are likely to lead you down the garden path. Trust research that measures actual consumer behavior and reveals what the consumer is actually doing when making a purchasing decision. My research shows that there is no such thing as the ethical consumer: your organization is best to simply produce products that are aligned with your target audience’s unique needs. That may or may not include elements of “ethical” production.